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Cultural Events Manager - Open Letter to Main Street - Dear Max

Dear Max (MacCarthy, Executive Director)

Strand Theatre Marquee Hi Max.  How are you doing?  I want to wish you the best in finding the right person for the Cultural Events and Communications Manager (CECM) position.  Many shoes this individual will have to fill including getting along with you! (hah, hah)  

I'm sure with the position being funded by ArtPlace that the expectations of the job are more than simply "putting on shows" or "writing grants" for more money.  Everyone from the Mayor on down is already thinking that Uphams Corner "is a Destination for the Arts."  And recently, the events at the Strand have attracted many people and received high praise.

Getting the Community Involved

If the arts are essential for quality of life, if they tie into people's emotions and sense of history and joy, then public art can help the people who live here connect with their community.  Art in the public arena is essential for improving the general prosperity of the community, true?  You've got to believe that, at least in your capacity of interfacing with the ArtPlace grant.

One thing for certain, a sense of community is completely missing from this place. Nobody in Uphams Corner goes to public meetings and only a few to public events.  Hispanic, Spanish-only speaking people, congregate in the businesses that speak their language. True even more for those who speak Cape Verdean Creole.
 
Why do you think this is true?  What creates the barrier for more fluid interaction? Is it a language problem? Is it because their social orientation is more towards family and church? Is it because community events have nothing to offer the non-English speaking cultures?

The challenge (for you) remains: How can an arts person engage a sufficient number of people from the community to participate in public arts events?  Or do we (you) even care?  How are you planning to measure your success?


Engaging the Local Artists

Reaching out at the grassroots level is important to engaging the community successfully. Last summer, walking down Sumner Street, I passed a three-decker where two gentlemen were coming out the front door, one strumming a guitar. Clearly from the Cape Verdean community, he was on his way, he said, to a gig.

Just last week, passing by Las Amerikas barbershop, I didn't see the usual people seated along the wall having their hair cut.  But in the waiting area were a half dozen men listening to two others playing guitar. After work entertainment, you could call it.

In my broken Spanish, I asked them if they wanted to be included in the street festival being planned for Uphams Corner in August. The smiles on their faces, the excitement and jubilation, their immediate willingness to generate "musica" for dancing were so obvious.

These people are not big names being brought into the Strand to attract wealthy, upper class arts patrons from the suburbs. These are ordinary people from the Cape Verdean community who participate in the arts every single day of their lives. 

Max, how important is it to you and the Main Street board members and the ArtPlace grant makers to work with the artists who already live in the community that no one knows anything about?  How important is it for all members of the community to come to know the many cultures and artistic forms of expression that already exist here?

We, as leaders of the community, can use a top-down hierarchical methodology to give the impression that the arts are active in Uphams Corner.  That will all be a matter of pretense unless we tap into the artists who live here.

Last winter we were supposed to hold a community holiday party (Dec 8) at the Strand that was to include a fashion show put on by the Bird Street youth.  Didn't happen.  But the Strand Open House before the Boston Ballet event on Feb 15 included three Uphams Corner organizations that focus on fashion: two businesses and the Bird Street youth. Each had a table set up to demonstrate their work (one business didn't show). That's nice but it doesn't begin to compare with a fashion show.  (Dumbing down)

One of the most important functions of an arts coordinator is to sit with all the people, all the stakeholders, all the organizations in the community to find out who they are artistically. If you ask them, they may tell you nothing because they are not even aware of how integral the arts are to their daily lives. 

What is it that wakes us up in the morning and gives us incredible energy to make it through the day, a creative thought or process or interaction with another human being? How can we tap into that energy and bring it to a community or public setting, generating a powerful gathering of people alive with the electricity of life?


The Mayor Prepping the Strand

Max, as you know, the Public Works Improvement Program under current design covers the one block section from the Strand Theatre to the parking lot behind CVS.  It's clear the project is NOT being done for the residents of Uphams Corner but rather for the Mayor's agenda. 

According to Zach Wassmouth, Principal Engineer for the project, when asked the genesis of the project, he said: "The mayor approved the plan." But who did the Mayor ask first?  It wasn't the residents of Uphams Corner.  "Why was Columbia Road selected for upgrade," they asked "when Dudley Street has more businesses and the sidewalks there are much more dangerous?"

Obviously, the Mayor is catering to his image of what visitors to the Strand need for them to want to return to Uphams Corner (the Strand). The $3 million project for Columbia Road is to help the visitors (residents don't have any problems) find their trip to and from the parking lots user-friendly, safe and in some ways, memorable. Focusing on how to make the Strand more viable is a great idea.  Constructing a posh roadway for visitors, (maybe ) will eliminate one more excuse for their not attending a theater in the inner city. 

But let's look at the real purpose of the Strand.  Is it venue?  Or is it serving the people?  Just who are the intended beneficiaries?  A picture perfect one block section of Columbia Rd does not an Uphams Corner make.  The point is that we must remember the people who live here - supporting the local cultural needs, tying efforts to the business district and creating a strong sense of community, pride and an energy that is magnetism to folks everywhere.


Who are you going to Hire?

Which brings us to the real topic:  Who are you going to hire?

Under the City of Boston's management, the stated mission of the Strand, at least on paper, has been to serve the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. Under ArtPlace the priority of serving the local community (it seems to me) is even higher.  So I want to ask you a touchy question.

Are you thinking of hiring someone who's always been here, who knows our neighborhoods well, who is a proven asset and who knows what the arts scene has required in the past? Doesn't that sound like a great strategy?  I'm going to suggest a different approach - that you get a little edgier, maybe move further outside the usual "art box" of candidates. 

The almost 90% POC (people of color) and not POW (people of white) who live here - how important are they to you?  How about  taking a risk and hiring a person of color from Mattapan or from Roxbury or maybe from the Cape Verdean / Hispanic or Haitian communities - somebody with a fresh view.  Or maybe you go way beyond Dorchester's parochial borders and hire someone who doesn't know Dorchester - maybe someone from the Somerville arts scene - new blood, new ideas. 


Job Description Requirements

Your stated job requirements include "experience or interest in community development; preferably in the grassroots setting." I like that, Max.

"Interest or experience in connecting arts/culture with local economic development" - That's essential for creating not just an arts destination but an arts community. Step 1:  Create arts events that are more than just the Strand Theatre. If events are only at the Strand, except for a very few local restaurants, any relationship that businesses will have to an arts scene will be nonexistent.

But that could change if we create events that are just outside the doors of the businesses.  If arts events are frequent enough and include the entire business district, if we find a way to bring people to Uphams Corner who don't live here AND if we get people out of their homes who already live here, well,  . . .  I can assure you our local businesses will generate their own ideas on how to get involved.

"Ability to work with diverse groups of people"  - but it must be in a meaningful way, not just setting up meetings and getting contributions, not just tapping into the usual stakeholders who are ever present to determine the future of Uphams Corner. Diverse groups of people (not just white), across a wide spectrum who live behind the closed doors in Uphams Corner, that's what we need to make this effort authentic. The question is: How do we get those doors to open?

What do you or the new Cultural Events Manager (CECM) have to offer people to get them to say yes? We obviously don't know the answer.  If we did, the events already taking place in Uphams Corner would be better attended.


Youth are Principle to the Success of an Arts Movement

When Geri Guardino was responsible for the Strand (McCormack Center for the Arts), she managed an incredibly popular and effective teen program.  People now in their late 20's and 30's continue to rave about it and how much the arts programming did for their lives.

Some of the best attended events at the Strand today continue to involve our youth - Boston Ballet -  youth from the Tobin School,  Boston Children's Chorus, Jane Money's many groups at Pope John Paul II Academy.  And let's not forget the BIrd Street youth either.  

Performers on stage are nothing if an audience is not there to clap - whoop - holler and make the performers feel like a million.  Family and friends will come out, fill the seats and make everyone feel good.


Declaring it So:  Uphams Corner IS a Destination for the Arts

Let's not be in the process of "becoming" a destination for the arts.  Becoming, trying, wanting, maybe - these are all mindsets that don't quite think it can be done. 

Rather, Uphams Corner must stake a claim:  "We are Uphams Corner - Destination for the Arts" with signs and stories and interviews, with street dances and face painting and LOTS of youth and intergenerational participation, openly, "in your face." 

Who are you? What are you doing?  "I'm an artist.  I am creating."

Ask merchants to display signs in EVERY window showing UC pride:
  • The Arts Rock in Uphams Corner
  • I'm a Fan of the Strand
  • I sell Art Supplies
  • I Love Uphams Corner
Get youth actively involved.  Do you know that City School, Dorchester Bay, DSNI and Bird Street all have youth activities centered on "social justice"? (Of course, you do.)  That's ok, but the focus is in the wrong direction.  They are looking at what society is NOT doing right. 

Ask our youth to look forward into the future, to help create an Uphams Corner that is doing it right.  Involved from the beginning, they will create a vibrant Uphams Corner of tomorrow.

If the buzz generated around Uphams is loud enough, the world will begin to think of our community as a true destination for the arts - not just a shadow of a thought, not just a painting in the making, but a sperm and egg united in the regeneration of a community.


So, Max, I wish you the best (Pres!).  You have a tough road ahead of you but an exciting one as well. 

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Posted: February 23, 2013     Nancy J Conrad


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