Storefront Artist Project Closes After a Decade

Alarming Shifts for Pittsfield Unique Arts Economy

By: - Nov 14, 2011


A letter circulated by Pittsfield's Storefront Artist Project founder Maggie Mailer announces that the organization will cease to exist following its annual Holiday event "12x12" a fundraiser auction for local schools on Dec. 12.

"Our starting mission was to fill empty storefronts and forge a community of artists, entrepreneurs, businesses, and residents. It's incredible to see all the positive changes in Pittsfield over the last ten years: theatre, galleries, restaurants, pop-up stores, coffee shops, artist run projects, and the list goes on .… A decade later, the board of Storefront Artist Project recognizes the time has come to say goodbye to this endeavor. We have achieved our purpose with flying colors. Downtown is thriving, and we are honored to have helped fill empty storefronts, put Pittsfield on the map, and become a model for the regeneration of other cities” Mailer wrote.

Last February SAP opened in its new South Street gallery relocating from the Fenn Street location it had maintained since 2006. At 31 South St. it shared space with the Emporium gift shop, which relocated from 441 North St. to join what was to be a co-promotional venture.

SAP's gallery remained empty for the past few months so this announcement comes as no surprise.  

It is difficult for an artist based initiative such as SAP to sustain over an extended period of time largely through volunteer efforts with limited funding. For the enormous amounts of energy poured into grass roots exhibition efforts by emerging artists eventually they fail to justify the disappointing feedback of poor attendance, spotty critical coverage, and sparse sales of work.

The norm is for those involved to burn out over time. So this attrition is unfortunate but predictable.

The timing, however, could not be worse and takes on additional impetus given the administrative change at City Hall. The new Mayor Daniel Bianchi, who won by a slim margin, has made it clear that he is no friend of the arts. He replaces James M. Ruberto who was a force behind the resurgence of Pittsfield driven by an arts based economy.

On his watch there was the renovation of the Colonial Theatre. After a shaky start and inept programming it is now in a new phase of growth and change through a merger with the Berkshire Theatre Festival. In the past couple of months there has been a dramatic increase in programming and a new venture The Garage bringing free concerts with a cabaret setting in the lobby. The Berkshire Theatre Group announced that James Taylor and family will appear at the Colonial in the annual family oriented production of the Christmas Carol.

Recently, the city retired a $500,000 loan to Barrington Stage Company by meeting all of the terms of an agreement over the past six years. It is known that Barrington would like to purchase the VFW building which houses its Stage Two. The cost is in the half million dollar range. For this it would likely turn to the city for support as it did when it moved to a permanent home in Pittsfield. Under Bianchi it is speculated that BSC might not find a receptive ear.

The Berkshire Museum has completed a $9 million renovation of its more than 100 year old structure. But in these hard times it vitally needs support from City Hall. Particularly given the decline of federal, state, corporate and private giving.

In the past ten years Pittsfield has come a long way. It is a very different downtown than when Mailer proposed to realtors that they allow artists to occupy all that empty space along North Street.

The all too typical cycle is for artists to improve run down and abandoned properties. Through their efforts and sweat equity over time real estate values increase. Commercial tenants take over from artist squatters. Artists, unless they have bought once affordable properties, are forced out. Or have to pay increased rents to maintain the same level of programming.

A decade later, when Pittsfield appears to be back on its feet, politicians appeal to a base that longs for the good old days before the artists, galleries, and theatres took over the city. Yahoo politicians like Bianchi, who won, in Pittsfield, and Ron Boucher, who lost in North Adams, talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs.

Just like the good old days of GE in Pittsfield and Sprague Electric in North Adams.

That ain’t gonnah happen.

Mailer and her innovative Storefront initiative helped to pull Pittsfield out of the ditch. That effort was sustained with vision and panache by Megan Whilden the head of The Department of Cultural Development.

Their brilliant efforts put Pittsfield on the map with a template for an arts economy emulated all over the country.

Sources close to Whilden suggest that she is updating her resume. Her departure would be an even greater loss for the city than the closing of Storefront.

If Bianchi stays true to his colors, and caters to the ignorance of his base, it is possible to inflict severe damage to the arts economy over the next two years. It will also be political suicide as the arts community circles the wagons.