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State of the Arts: How does Nashua not have an arts center?
Can you guess how many public performance venues there are in Nashua?
Three? Nope. Six? Try again.
“14 venues. Who knew that?” said Liz Racioppi, chairwoman of the Nashua Arts Commission.
Most people are familiar with the Court Street Theater and the Edmund M. Keefe Auditorium, but there are a dozen other locations throughout the city – outdoor stages, standalone venues, spaces inside public buildings – where arts organizations can exhibit or perform.
The closure of Nashua’s Studio 99, a listening-room-style music venue, in early March has led some to question the future of the city’s arts scene, but interviews with city officials and various arts professionals have painted a picture that’s far from bleak.
“When the (state) commissioner of Cultural Resources comes to Nashua and tells me how excited he is about all the things we’re doing, I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Mayor Donnalee Lozeau said.
Nashua is home to many successful arts organizations and events, but most people are acquainted with only a few of them. To truly make the most of the city’s cultural assets and provide the greatest benefit to residents and visitors alike, Nashua needs to increase awareness that it has a cohesive arts scene and promote itself as a cultural destination.
The Nashua Arts Commission, whose purpose is to facilitate, advocate, coordinate and educate on behalf of the city’s arts and cultural organizations, is working on exactly that. The commission was formed in 2011, however, so plans are still in the discussion stage and will likely take some time to come to fruition.
To help keep the conversation going, we reached out to two New Hampshire cities well known for their cohesive cultural scenes – Portsmouth and Concord – to find out how they made the transition from planning to implementation, and if either of their paths might be helpful to Nashua.
Portsmouth – An arts-based approach
For Portsmouth, familiarity with the city’s demographics and the needs of its artistic community, as well as its audiences, has been key, said Nancy Carmer, economic development program manager for the city of Portsmouth.
She cited the recent creation of 3S Artspace, which houses a gallery space, a performance space, a farm-to-table restaurant and artist workspace, as an example.
Co-founder Chris Greiner “saw the need for a venue for emerging artists,” Carmer said. “We have these other venues that serve different needs, different creative outlets,” such as the Music Hall, a performing arts center with two theater spaces, and Prescott Park, which caters to outdoor events.
“It kind of hearkens back to how Portsmouth started to become a cultural destination,” she said, in that 3S Artspace renovated an existing building to create a new venue.
In Nashua, Racioppi has seen demographics and audience play a role in some of the emerging arts groups, such as Positive Street Art, which has a more urban style.
“People are excited about it, and they draw people, a lot of young people, to their art events,” she said.
Young people have also been influencing Nashua’s cultural scene through Renaissance Downtowns, a real-estate development company tasked with doing some work near the bridge to Hudson.
The company holds meetings each month that draw a lot of younger attendees, Racioppi said, and crowdsources suggestions, giving this demographic a stronger voice in the arts community.
It’s a voice that has encouraged her to look at art a little differently, she said.
Racioppi is also interested in the possibility of repurposing empty spaces as smaller venues, particularly for use as an arts cinema.
“I’ve always loved that idea,” she said. “I think it’s great to be looking at empty buildings like that.”
It’s a concept Lozeau finds feasible, as well.
“I think ideas like that are always on the table,” she said, adding that such a venue might be a possibility for the closed space that is currently not up to code at the Court Street Theater.
Concord – A business-based approach
In Concord, the business community, rather than the arts community, has taken the lead in transforming the city into a cultural destination.
“It’s the Chamber of Commerce that has been the driver of creative economic development in the city,” said Byron Champlin, chairman of the Creative Concord Committee.
The Capitol Center for the Arts, Concord’s performing arts center, is on South Main Street.
“Some of it was actually considered a blighted community for federal tax purposes,” he said.
Concord’s City Economic Development Advisory Council urged the City Council to authorize a creative economy task force, which spent a year and a half looking at the assets in the city and how they could be used to sustain and broaden the creative economy.
The task force issued a report in 2008 that recommended a committee be formed in the Chamber of Commerce to take charge of Concord’s creative economy. That committee is the Creative Concord Committee.
The Capitol Center, Champlin said, functioned as an anchor to bring more arts organizations and culturally centered businesses to South Main Street.
The redevelopment of the nearby Sears Block in 2007 brought Red River Theatres to the other end of the street, and in 2011, the Smile Building, part of the former Sanel Block, opened its doors across the street from the Capitol Center.
One of the Smile Building’s tenants is the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. The organization had been planning to leave Concord, Champlin said, until the Creative Concord Committee helped them identify the new space and move into it.
Fostering a more cohesive arts scene came from a change in the way the city viewed its cultural organizations.
“What’s different is we’ve started to think of them all as assets as opposed to institutions that happen to be there,” Champlin said.
Chris Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Nashua Arts Commission, believes an arts center is a key ingredient to making Nashua a cultural destination.
“My personal opinion is that the best way for Nashua to put itself on the arts and cultural map of New England is for us to pursue a real and modern state-of-the-art performing arts facility,” he said, adding that he believes such a venue could be possible within five to 10 years.
“We don’t have that one facility around which everyone is able to revolve,” Williams said. “We have the Keefe Auditorium, but the Keefe Auditorium is located outside of the downtown, and it’s in a school building.”
This, he explained, places Nashua at a competitive disadvantage to cities such as Concord and Portsmouth.
“Their major arts centers are located downtown and have their own space, accommodate a sizable audience,” Williams said.
For Lozeau, however, an arts center isn’t financially feasible for the city right now.
“These are very difficult economic times,” she said. “I just cannot justify that at this time.”
In the meantime …
Although Nashua is still planning how to make the jump from a city with a thriving arts scene to a cultural destination, the Nashua Arts Commission seems well positioned to help the city take that next step.
One of the commission’s greatest assets is its openness to successful ideas from elsewhere in the state.
“The state of New Hampshire is very organized when it comes to towns and cities talking to each other about things like this,” Racioppi said, adding that she’s a member of the statewide Creative Communities Network, which does exactly that.
“We do definitely have a lot to learn from other cities and towns around us.”
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published March 28, 2013 in The Telegraph, Nashua, NH.
IMPACT OF THE ARTS
How much money are the arts worth to a community?
It’s hard to say exactly, but one attempt to estimate is the Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity study.
A statewide study was conducted in 2011, representing fiscal 2010, but Nashua was not well represented, with only two arts organizations contributing data.
The study determined that in New Hampshire in 2010, $53 million was spent by arts and culture organizations and $62 million was spent by arts and culture audiences, for a total of $115 million.
Because the study only includes nonprofit arts and culture organizations and only some of them participated, the economic impact of the arts on New Hampshire is likely even greater.
Greater Portsmouth and Greater Concord also participated in this survey as individual communities.
In Portsmouth, Nancy Carmer, economic development program manager for the city, said the study determined that $10.5 million was spent by arts and culture organizations and $31 million was spent by audiences, for a total of $41.5 million.
“We were a little concerned, given that 2011 was the middle of a recession,” Carmer said. “This sector of our economy continues to grow in spite of the recession.”
In Concord, the study determined that arts and culture organizations spent $10.8 million and audiences spent $6.96 million, for a total of $17.7 million.
Mayor Donnalee Lozeau doesn’t think Nashua needs to participate further in the Arts & Economic Prosperity study.
“The analysis can be applied to any community,” she said of the results obtained statewide and by other cities.
Chris Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Nashua Arts Commission, agreed.
“We don’t need a study to tell us that the arts can be a big economic boost for us, because the evidence is already there, as seen by the studies done in neighboring communities,” he said. “We just need to actually make that happen.”
For more information on the American for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity survey, visit www.nh.gov/nharts/aboutus/aftasurvey2011/index.html.
NASHUA’S CITY-OWNED VENUES
Here’s the list of city-owned venues from the Nashua Arts Commission’s webpage (www.gonashua.com/ArtsandLeisure/ArtsCommission/tabid/1081/Default.aspx). Are you familiar with all 14?
- 14 Court St.
- 36 Arlington St.
- Chandler Library Building
- Greeley Park Bandshell
- Holman Stadium
- Hunt Memorial Building
- Edmund M. Keefe Auditorium
- Nashua Public Library Music, Art & Media Wing
- Nashua Public Library Plaza
- Nashua Public Library Theater
- Nashua High School North Auditorium
- Nashua High School South Auditorium
- Railroad Square Gazebo
- Stellos Stadium