Knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t always mean you’re ready for it. Chat with Northampton Center for the Arts Director Penny Burke about the coming year, and you get the sense that her job must take patience and perseverance. When it began, the Center signed a 30-year lease. This year, the lease is up. Not even three decades’ worth of advance knowledge, though, guarantees that there’s an ideal place—or any place at all—to move to.
When the Center for the Arts was created in the early ’80s as a non-profit to present arts events in the D.A. Sullivan school building, the organization became a tenant, with the city of Northampton as landlord. It has since played a helpful role in the arts scene, especially as an alternative venue for performers looking to put on a show on their own terms. The Center has long seemed synonymous with the impressive ballroom and galleries that reside on the old school building’s third floor, but the current challenge makes it quite clear that the organization and the space are two different things.
Burke, who’s directed the Center since December of 2004, is a fast-paced, direct speaker, animated and passionate. That passion is part of what’s enabled her to pull off an ever-bigger First Night Northampton, a task she first undertook for New Year’s Eve 2001-2, then resumed as Center director. That’s a herculean task, but this year, all that energy is driving the search to find the Center a new home.
That hasn’t happened, but it’s not for a lack of trying. “In 2006,” Burke says, “We met with other arts organizations to talk about what would be an ideal venue for artists, not just for performances, but for things like rehearsals, and for art exhibitions.”
Since then, the Center has investigated the possibility of inhabiting new digs at the Roundhouse (down the hill behind the Academy of Music), St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street, and First Churches Northampton. The Roundhouse effort ran into trouble because of the abandoned project for a hotel just next door, which led to litigation that was then still pending. With St. John Cantius, Burke says, some unusual things came to light. “Apparently, the bishop has final say over what goes on there, even after it’s been sold.”
Despite the potential appeal of a Northampton Arts Bishop, that’s apparently more possible involvement than the Center is willing to risk.
The second church possibility, First Churches Northampton, on Main Street, seemed all but set to happen. News articles reported that the Center had all but measured for draperies, and thought the situation was ideal. “It unravelled,” says Burke, “because of internal issues with the church.”
Yet another possibility existed: the Center was offered the chance to buy its space in the D.A. Sullivan building.
What sounds at first like an easy, perfect solution proves to be a sore spot. Burke’s delivery hits a peak when she explains that the Center’s board decided against buying the space because the atmosphere in the building, which now houses a few commercial clients and a lot of condominiums, “was not conducive to housing an arts organization.”
That small phrase is the result of a tangle of complicated relations between the building’s residents.
When Burke talks about the Center’s struggles with its neighbors in the D.A. Sullivan building, there’s a clear sense of frustration. Burke explains that the developer who’s owned the building since the early 2000s, Rockwell Allen, no longer has the most prominent voice because of the trustees representing owners of the living spaces in the building.
In recent years, she explains, “the condominium association made rules so stringent that it would be nearly impossible for us to be seen.”
She walks over and points at a large neon sign resting in the corner. “We had that made, for around $800, I think. It wasn’t up 12 hours until we were told we had to take it down.
“We’re invisible because of the lack of exterior signage and the dedicated entrance we used to have.”
The conflict, Burke says, arose from the terms of the original contract. “[The Center] doesn’t pay for upkeep on the common areas we share with the residents—things like elevators and parking lots. The residents said, ‘Why are we paying for upkeep for the Center?’”
They said, too, that visitors to the Center weren’t “respectful” of the common areas they used.
“At one point,” Burke says, “the condominium association hired an attorney to ‘whip us back into shape.’”
Though such things can seem like a tempest in a teapot, Burke says that they’re symptomatic of the reality of Northampton’s current attitude toward the arts versus its reputation as a mecca for art and artists.
“I haven’t talked about it a lot, because I’ve thought it was not productive, but I think it’s worth talking about.
“The situation with First Churches is a good example. That should have worked, but didn’t. A small number of parishioners didn’t feel comfortable sharing space with the arts center.”
Center for the Arts Assistant to the Director Amanda Hill, a young artist whose paintings currently hang in the Center’s gallery space, chimes in. “It’s hard to get people to be receptive. Northampton is losing its artists. I see people going to Easthampton, to Florence.”
“And Holyoke,” adds Burke.
“It’s changing,” says Hill. “There’s a different kind of art.”
(Florence, though geographically separated, is a village technically within the city of Northampton.)
Burke continues, “In a way, Northampton has outgrown a small arts council. I don’t understand why our structure in the city isn’t more reflective of artists’ needs. There is no cohesive vision. Certain individuals who are comfortable in their positions are comfortable with the status quo.
“They’re not the majority, though—I wouldn’t be here knocking myself out if I didn’t think there was a lot of community spirit. It’s a lot of work, but it isn’t rocket science.”
In the coming year, the evolution of the Center for the Arts and of Burke’s position as First Night organizer stand to determine a significant part of the Northampton arts landscape. How the city and/or other arts organizations approach the monstrous task of organizing First Night, whether it’s parcelled out or centralized, stands to make or break an important part of the cultural calendar that employs a massive number of musicians and other artists.
The Center itself can get lost in the shuffle of venues and presenting organizations, but it’s especially important as a lower-stakes alternative to the usual places artists can turn, especially musicians who see a Northampton in which one large presenter, the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, controls several key places to play.
Partially in recognition of the Center’s role, the group Northampton Community Arts Trust formed in 2010 with a mission “to protect and ensure the long term vitality of the Northampton community through creation and conservation of downtown arts spaces.” The Trust’s board includes Burke, members of the Northampton Arts Council and members of other arts organizations.
The big question, says Burke, is, “Is this a community that wants an arts center? If you do, speak up!”•
Bye Bye Ballroom, with music from the O-Tones, food, cocktails and fancy dress, happens Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m., $25 plus cash bar, Northampton Center for the Arts, 17 New South St., Northampton, (413) 584-7327.
Center for the Arts programming runs through March. For a full calendar of events, visit nohoarts.org.