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Using art to ensure that culture endures

Wednesday Feb 21, 2018

Photo: Melissa Blackall Photography
Photo: Melissa Blackall Photography  (Source: Courtesy of Pao Arts Center)

By Matt Wilson, Giles Li, and Cynthia Woo

We decorate our homes, offices or dorm rooms with family photos, prints of favorite paintings, vases of fragrant flowers and potted plants. We frame our kids' crayon drawings, display heirlooms and mementos of meaningful moments. We decorate because it's comforting and nourishing to surround ourselves with familiar, pretty, pleasing objects. We define and express ourselves through the places we live.

Likewise, in a movement known as "Placemaking," communities are increasingly seeing the value of designing and using public spaces to reflect the lives of their residents, express shared values and history, and strengthen the bonds between the people who use those spaces.

As the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces defines it, "Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution." In other words, placemaking is how we create a communal living room, as comforting, nourishing and beautiful as any private refuge.

Naturally, arts and culture play a significant role in placemaking, bringing not just beauty and vibrancy to our public spaces, but economic benefits to our communities, too. That is particularly true here in the Massachusetts, where cities and communities within them often embrace their unique history in placemaking projects.

New Bedford, for example, tapped into its maritime history and honored its large Portuguese community in a public mural series that is encouraging even locals to explore the historic downtown district anew. It's no coincidence that AHA! (Art, History & Architecture), the city's free monthly Downtown Cultural Night and cultural organization, was found to annually generate more than
$800,000 in economic activity in the city. "Beyond Walls," a similar initiative in downtown Lynn, honors that city's immigrant history. Local businesses--from the city's art museum to the local coffeehouse--saw a big boost in sales during a public celebration of the artwork last summer.

MassDevelopment, the state's economic development and finance authority, understands that arts and culture are key to building vibrant, inviting, economically stable communities. That's why it sponsors "Commonwealth Places," a "crowdgranting" program that funds select projects by municipalities and nonprofit organizations to activate new or distressed public and community spaces in moderate- to low-income areas.

Much like a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Commonwealth Places, using the platform Patronicity allows individual donors to contribute directly to a particular project. The twist is that if a project reaches its crowdsourced funding goal within 60 days, MassDevelopment awards a matching grant, allowing projects to instantly double their funding intake. Many of the projects MassDevelopment has supported emphasize or otherwise incorporate the arts. "Beyond Walls," for example, was a Commonwealth Places project.

Also among the Commonwealth Places grantees is the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown, the neighborhood's first community arts center and a designated hub for Asian arts and culture in a neighborhood continually threatened by displacement and cultural erasure due to development and gentrification. After exceeding its crowdfunding goal of $50,000, the Pao Arts Center, originally called the One Chinatown Arts Center, received an additional $50,000 from MassDevelopment.

The center's location--inside a new luxury high-rise and abutting I-93--is a reminder of the existential threats that Chinatown has faced. But those were far from top of mind on a recent night in January, when Pao's art gallery welcomed a large crowd for the opening reception of "Kulap: New Works by Bren Bataclan," which chronicles the Cambridge-based artist's experiences as an immigrant in the U.S. With their winter coats folded and stacked neatly on a couch, guests mingled, munched on lumpia and Filipino barbecue, and sipped from cans of Schweppes seltzer until the genial Bataclan shepherded them through the exhibit, elucidating the events he depicted and the feelings of alienation, discovery, confusion and belonging that inspired them. On this frozen winter night Chinatown's communal living room was a place of warmth and resilience.

To date, Commonwealth Places has supported 27 projects and awarded $682,000 in grants. More than 5000 individuals have contributed to campaigns, raising a total of $820,000. The program is still accepting applications.

With numerous studies showing the economic, educational, and social benefits of arts and culture in Massachusetts and beyond, MassDevelopment is making a sound investment each time it funds a placemaking project that deploys arts and culture to revitalize or strengthen one of our communities. In an era of ever shrinking public funding for the arts the agency is setting a powerful example about what is possible when we make a place for arts and culture-in our communities and in our budgeting process.

Matt Wilson is the executive director of MASSCreative. Giles Li is the executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. Cynthia Woo is the director of the Pao Arts Center at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.

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