DownStreet 09 in North Adams
An Increase to 27 Venues for Second Season
By: Charles Giuliano - Jun 29, 2009
There was so much to see, with 27 destinations on the map, that the second annual, DownStreet 09, took several days to unfold. Fortunately there was a break in the weather on opening night, Thursday, June 24.
An ambulatory crowd of some thousand wound their way through the many venues.Visitors wandered up and down Main Street in North Adams veering off to lively shows on Holden and Eagle Streets.
The Eclipse Mill Gallery drew a nice audience for its opening of "Two Actors, Ten Painters" for a Friday night vernissage. The evening was highlighted by actors from Main Street Stage. The festivities continued on Saturday with openings for a show of collages by Danny O at North Adams Antiques. While Kolok Gallery premiered "Tidal Lines: Paintings and Collages by Melissa Matsuki Lillie."
DownStreet has roughly doubled its scope with a number of new spaces It is taking a leaf from Storefront Artists which has played an important role in revitalizing neighboring Pittsfield. Empty retail spaces in North Adams have been converted, with enormous sweat equity on the part of artists, into temporary art galleries.
Part of the arrangement with landlords is that "For Lease" signs are displayed in the windows of temporary galleries. In general these galleries, which are paying rent, will operate between now and North Adams Open Studios which will have its fifth annual weekend in October. That's when the heat comes on, a considerable expense, combined with the general decline of traffic and tourism.
The intent of DownStreet which is organized and sponsored by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in cooperation with the City of North Adams, is to bring traffic and tourism to the business district of North Adams. Mass MoCA is again participating in the project, this year doubling its presence with an exhibition by George Cochrane a cartoon artist whose work is simultaneously on view in the museum, and at 5 Holden Street. There is also a version of Mass MoCA's Kidspace at 107 Main Street. Last year that large storefront was the site of the North Adams Cooperative Gallery.
This season the North Adams Co-Op Gallery, with 35 participating artists, has been relocated to a larger and more interesting space, with several adjoining areas, at 33 Main Street. Last year the Co-Op, which was far up Main Street near the Mohawk Theatre, got less traffic than venues closer to the corner of Route 8 the primary passage way to and from Mass MoCA. Switching the venue for the Co-Op and Kidspace makes a lot of sense. It gives the large Co-Op a more attractive location.
Kidscape will surely lure its own audience of families with toddlers. This was certainly evident on opening night. It is also a smart strategy to have this family oriented activity as a part of the overall marketing of the season long event. It is the perfect destination for housebound families on a rainy day. Of which there appears to be an abundance.
The great challenge for the ongoing economic recovery and development of North Adams is how to lure traffic and activity to the struggling down town business district. An overwhelming issue is that coming down on Route Two from the Mohawk Trail, or approaching the city along Route 8, years ago the flow of traffic was designed to get you thorough the city and on to Williamstown, from there on to Troy. Like many cities the throughway which cuts through the heart of North Adamas has had a negative impact on local business. While the downtown suffers, typically, the malls thrive and expand. The parking lot of Walmart, just outside town, is always packed, as is the parking lot of Mass MoCA, while downtown is static.
Filling the empty space on the corner with the large Co-Op at 33 Main Street is crucial. It indicates to traffic driving past the Holiday Inn on the left, up an overpass and on to Adams, that there is a reason to turn left at the light and explore Main Street. It has been observed that the density of the flow of traffic is determined by proximity to Mass MoCA. The foot traffic tapers off considerably by the time you reach the Mohawk Theatre which is under renovation. It is a crucial part of the strategy to improve traffic but nobody is certain just how the theatre will be programmed. It lacks the deep stage and large back stage required for full scale theatrical productions. The original function of the theatre, part of the chain of E. M. Lowe, was to show movies. It never had a phase of vaudeville like the magnificent Colonial Theatre in Pittsfeld which has undergone some $20 million in renovation.
The concept of Down Street is to create the business district as a destination for at least a part of the 145,000 art tourists who visit Mass MoCA. It has been reported that last year DownStreet attracted 15,000 visitors and it is hoped to improve on those numbers this summer. It has been anticipated that there would be a bounce because of the addition of the Sol LeWitt building. Traffic this winter and spring has been off peak. So the excitement of LeWitt is offset by the poor economy and a Berkshire wide decline of arts tourism and business.
While this is the first full summer for the LeWitt building it is also felt that there is very compelling related fine arts programming at nearby Williamstown. The Williams College Art Museum is showing the photography of Edward Steichen in great depth and will soon open what will prove to be a popular exhibition "Prendergast in Italy." The Clark Art Institute has a honey of a show in Georgia O'Keeffe. It is also expected that the Williamstown Theatre Festival is back on track with a vibrant season of shows through late August.
Coming out of the Mass MoCA parking lot you run into, literally, a wall (the massive overpass) with not a clue or motive to find your way around that daunting obstacle. There needs to be an urban design study and project starting with enticing and informative signage and the placement of site specific works of art that extend the campus and mandate of Mass MoCA to lure you into the rest of the city. The museum clearly has the recourses to make this possible.
This strategy has been discussed the but city is concerned about issues of graffiti and maintenance. It is also an argument against placing benches in the business area. Elders avoid the area as it allows no place to rest. Other than the temporary DownStreet it is felt that the mix of business ventures is not appropriate to the interests of those visiting one of the largest contemporary art museums in North America.
Many of the decisions about placement of benches, site specific sculptures, and permits for signs reflect the personal taste of Mayor John Barrett. Approaching North Adams from any direction, for example, signs welcoming one to the city and its varied attractions are either non existant or underwhelming. There was national media coverage when the City Council objected to a life drawing by Eric Rudd in the window of his gallery on Eagle Street. Mayor Barrett points out that his opponent Dick Albombright supported the ban.
Nobody is suggesting transforming North Adams into Vegas but it is obvious that struggling entrepreneurs, shops, galleries and restaurants need more effective resources of graphic design, marketing and advertising. Tourists unfamilar with what the city has to offer need to be informed. In most instances it is a matter of moments when emerging from Mass MoCA, or driving through on highways, they move on for dining, exploring and shopping.
The challenge is to keep Mass MoCA visitors in North Adams for dining and shopping. Given the scale of the museum, however, and now with the LeWitt building added to the vast space on view, it is observed that visitors are exhausted by the end of the day. They are not likely to have the time or energy for further exploration.
It has been the norm that visitors to the Southern Berkshires, for Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Red Lion Inn, Berkshire Theatre Festival, would possibly take a day of vacation time to visit Williamstown and the Clark Art Institute. Now Mass MoCA is a part of the lure. The strategy is how to convert that flow of tourism into an overnight visit, or a weekend. The emergence of Porches has served to attract more upscale visitors who will linger in the area. The Holiday Inn, however, is in transition and needs renovation. Another upscale accomodation is the Williams Inn but its guests prmarily stay in Williamstown. The guests may visit Mass MoCA then return to Williamstown.
While it is encouraging that Mass MoCA is participating in DownStreet with two venues there needs to be a coordinated marketing and advertising strategy. Given the enormous effort and commitment of the community of artists to renovate and staff all of those gallery spaces it will be deeply disappointing if there is not an increase in traffic and tourism, as well as sales of work.
Now that DownStreet is up and running the real challenge is to see that the city wide project is nurtured and sustained. One major part of that will entail Mass MoCA informing its visitors that there is a lot more to see and enjoy once you drive off campus. You can never have enough marketing and PR. There is a great story to sell but that also means a sustained commitment from a synergy of the major players. This year there is an ambitious calendar of special events, including Last Thursday openings, intended to lure visitors.
During the opening remarks by VIPs including Mayor John Barrett, Mary Grant, the President of MCLA, and Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA the overall tone was positive and upbeat. They spoke of working together discussing signifiers of change and progress.
From the podium Mayor Barrett pointed me out as a critic who feels that Pittsfield is doing a better job of marketing itself as a city being revitalized by its commitment and support for the arts. We took it out to the sidewalk following the reception to follow up on some of those issues. Mayor Barrett pointed out that Pittsfield receives $2 million annually in state funding for development compared to just $600,000 for North Adams. The amount of money is keyed to population. I asked who is the go to guy at city hall for the arts in North Adams? Or how to deal with the urban design issues of increasing the flow of traffic and tourism through the business district? What about site specific sculptures and benches down town?
Currently, Pittsfield is removing the traffic circle in the heart of the city. It was dangerous and also spun traffic away from the business district. The access is being redesigned so that traffic entering from Lenox (Tanglewood) will be able to continue straight ahead to North Street with its theatres, galleries, shops, and restaurants. Largely because of the Storefront Artists Project, the renovation of the Berkshire Museum, the Colonial Theatre, Barrington Stage Company, and a multi screen art movie theatre opening in December, there is now a 90% occupancy rate of retail space along North Street.
Not that long ago the downtown of Pittsfield was grim. A lot of money has gone into turning the city around including the $10 million fund from General Electric when it pulled out. The Berkshire Museum raised $10 million for renovation and $20 million went into the Colonial Theatre.
The growth and development in Pittsfield sets standards and inspiration for what may be accomplished in North Adams. One can't underestimate the importance of Joe Thompson in launching and sustaining Mass MoCA, or the role that Mayor Barrett played in making that possible. Former Governor William Weld, when he came to office after Michael Dukakis signed the bill for Mass MoCA on his last day in office, stated that the museum would get that money "over my dead body." In addition to Barrett and Thompson there was advocacy from Jane Swift. Mass MoCA, however, which started with $35 million in state funding, has not been a silver bullet solving all the problems for a still very depressed Northern Berkshire economy.
Hopefully these issues will be debated vigorously in the lively Mayoral contest between the incumbent, Barrett, the longest running Mayor in the Commonwealth, and a strong opponent in Richard Alcombright. Mayor Barrett is scheduled to meet with artists at the Eclipse Mill on Wednesday, July 15, at 8PM. Everyone is welcome to attend what will be an interesting event. For the first time it appears that artists are solidifying as an entity in North Adams politics. They are being courted by both candidates. Alcombright has already met with the Eclipse artists.
The growing community of artists is a key element in the equation for growth and change in North Adams. The switch from manufacturing at the former Sprague Electric, to the arts as a force that drives the economic engine, was inspired by the presence of Mass MoCA for its first decade but will extend far beyond that in the coming decade. Mass MoCA is the magnet that has drawn many artists to the area. It is widely felt that we have not yet connected the dots between that growing community, City Hall, MCLA, and Mass MoCA. There is some but not enough progress in this direction. Clearly, DownStreet is a step in the right direction.
The breadth, depth and high energy of the second season of DownStreet provides compelling evidence of the presence and the expanding influence of the creative community. The goals of artists are remarkably simple. They want large affordable spaces to make their work. That North Adams has in abundance. Secondly, they need jobs to support themselves. Then they strive for audiences to appreciate their work and ultimately sales to collectors and museums. All of this is possible. Which is why we are here and the numbers are steadily improving.
While it seems simple it is not an easy sell. Yes, there was a strong turnout for the DownStreet events but mostly there were the familiar faces of the art crowd. Not that many of the local people, working class families in a mostly blue collar town, were out and about. This will change but it is proving to be a slow and gradual process.
One of the delights of being a part of the arts community is growth and change. This is most evident in the quality of work being created. During our tour of the numerous exhibitions there were wonderful surprises. It is always exciting to see artists taking new directions with their work. Just when you think you know what an artist is doing they try something different.
Some months ago there was a collage show at MCLA's Gallery 51. Melissa Matsuki Lillie was new to the process. The exhibition included her first efforts in collage. Everyone was floored when the work sold out. Now she is back with new paintings and collages at Kolok Gallery, Windsor Mill, 121 Union Street.. This change in the work is fresh, vibrant and sure to be a great success for the gallery. Kolok will follow with an exhibition of work by Peter Dudek who is the director of Pittsfield's Storefront Artists. As if not busy enough Dudek is involved with the renovation and reopening of the historic Bascom Lodge on the top of Mt. Greylock. It is scheduled to open on July 4 and operate seasonally through Thanksgiving. There will be an artist residence program as a part of the Lodge which will feature a family style restaurant run by his brother. During the installation on Saturday we spoke with Kurt about his long term plans for the gallery. After a period of relative inactivity and deliberation he confirms that he definitely plans to continue
The Eclipse Mill Gallery, at 243 Union Street, is operated by owners and residents. The space is one of the largest and most attractive in the Berkshires. Over the past several seasons it has become established for the quality and diversity of its programming. For the past two years the season has started with the lively and eclectic Berkshire Salon which is open to all Berkshire based artists. This is followed by a program of monthly exhibitions through the New Year when the space closes for winter hibernation.
The current exhibition "Two Actors, Ten Painters" was co-curated by Eclipse residents Andrew Davis and Sharon Carson. They are included in the show as well as: Renee Bouchard, Ed Cating, Jaye Fox, Joan Kiley, David Lane, Norm Thomas, Thor Wickstrom, and Rodney Wilkinson. The project evolved out of life drawing sessions at Main Stree Stage. To emphasize that connection several actors presented hilarious sketches of how to use pretentious art speak during gallery openings and at the theatre. It was great fun and hopefully will be repeated.
We chatted with Ed Cating who recently directed Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Main Street Stage. It was given an enthusiastic BFA review by Larry Murray. The portraits by Norm Thomas and Joan Kiley were a nice extension of their recent work. The charcoal on paper large scale drawing of a man, by Jay Fox, was stunning as was the Gainsborough like painting of a full length costumed woman by Thor Wickstrom.
A DownStreet visit to the Eclipse Mill also includes River Hill Pottery operated by Gail and Phil Sellers. The Ralph Brill Gallery mounts quarterly shows of major artists and photographers. While not a gallery it is well worth popping in on book seller Grover Askins who has a nice selection of art books.
Across the road from the Eclipse on Route 2 is NOAMA Gallery and the Berkshire Artisan Market. Check out the enormous translucent, abstract paintings by the Parisian artist, Noelle Chazelle. During last year's Open Studios, and again in this coming October, the vast mill exhibits works by numerous artists.
Where Route Two curves and climbs the hill to the Mohawk Trail is the turn off to the Beaver Mill. It is owned by Eric and Barbara Rudd who for many years operated the Contemporary Artists Center which has relocated to Troy, New York. There is currently a mixed program of installations, open studios and artist talks. It is presented by a newly formed group Berkshire Artists Colony (BAC). This summer sees the launch of their Second Floor Gallery as well as a gallery on Eagle Street. Rudd also maintains the Chapel for Humanity at 82 Summer Street and has a gallery on Eagle Street.
The epicenter of DownStreet is Gallery 51 the home base for MCLA at 51 Main Street. Currently there is the exhibition "Threaded" which has been co-curated by the artists Ven Voisey and Angela Zammarelli. The fiber based project blurs the line between art and craft. It includes: Timothy Abel, Karylee Doubiago, Michael Haughan, Olivia Park, Carla Michel, Emmen Ramstad, Stephen St. Francis Decky, Ven Voisey, Melissa Wagner-Lawler, Anne Weber and Angela Zammarelli.
Following this exhibition will be three other, month long projects including a solo exhibition for Eclipse artist, Debbie Pendell. In the Gallery 51 Annex, at 65 Main Street is an installation The Refractive Kinescope by Kinodance Company.
Avalon Seafood Gallery
During the opening Jessica Conzo, an MCLA administrator commented to a group of visitors that "Last summer Andy Davis worked so hard for the Co-Op that we decided to give him his own gallery." I asked if the name reflected a former tenant of the space? With typical humor Andy replied "It is named for my first job. I worked for a company named Avalon Seafood. Actually this space was formerly a shop for pet grooming." Davis plans to mount four exhibitions during the season.
The best news on Main Street was the establishment of North Adams Antiques by the artists Jeff and Jane Hudson at 49 Main Street. There are antiques in front and an eclectic gallery in back. The store became a hangout for artists to drop by and chat.
The Main Street store has been open less and less as they have concentrated on a second store, Hudson's, on the Mass MoCA campus, and now a third Hudson's which recently opened on Spring Street in Williamstown. It is next to Harrison Gallery and diagonally across the street from a new retail store for Mass MoCA in front of Images Theatre which has been renovated.
Through the run of DownStreet the North Adams store will feature a one man show by the collage artist, Danny O. The stock of antiques and collectables have largely been transferred to the other two venues. The lease in North Adams expires in December and it is assumed but not certain that the mixed use venue will close.
There are a number of projects spread out around the business district. Jarvis Rockwell returns to 73 Main Street with a pyramid of toys "Maya III." At 28 Holden Street is "Works and Days 1979-2009: A Survey of Selected Work by Mark Mulherrin." There is the Video Lounge curated by Lana Z. Caplan at 33 Main Street. Joshua Field has a window installation "On Shores of Pitch" at 73 Main Street. Suncatcher Glass is found at 63 Main Street. On Eagle Street is Papyri Book Gallery, at 45, Berkshire Artists Colony, at 46, and Rudd's Art Space @ Historic Flatiron, at 36. The North Adams Museum of History and Science is on the map at Heritage State Park.
For Barbara May it was a difficult decision to renew the lease for Tangiers on Main Street. The economy has been tough for the long standing business which combines tanning booths, gift items, crafts and her framed works as well as a selection by other artists.
With her location next to North Adams Antiques and a couple of doors away from Gallery 51 I asked May if DownStreet had helped business last summer and what she expected this season. We were surprised to learn that for the second year in a row she was turned down on a request to be included in DownStreet. She stated that her mix of original works of art, some 30 pieces, is not that different from other venues which have been included.
While it is logical to have a cutoff point decisions about who is or not included seems somewhat arbitrary. Elf Parlor CafÃ©, at 303 Ashland Street, which is a coffee shop and performance space, is included. But Cup and Saucer, on Main Street, which offers rotating shows to local artists is not. The Alley on Eagle Street which is similar to Elf Parlor is not on the map. Is this a matter of decision making or spin the bottle?
Driving by Tangiers today I spotted a sandwich board sign promoting "UpStreet." You go girl.
Several days after this report was posted there was a decision to allow Barbara May to put a DownStreet sign in the window of her shop Tangiers on Main Street.