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CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS CENTER NIXES NORTH ADAMS DEVELOPMENT

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By CHARLES GIULIANO


There was a profound sense of disappointment and loss when it was recently announced that negotiations between the Contemporary Artists Center and the City of North Adams to develop space in the former Notre Dame Church and rectory for gallery, studio and office space had broken down.

There was also surprise on the part of city officials when just days after North Adams and Arch Street Development ended its negotiations with CAC the arts group cut a deal for a pair of historic buildings in nearby South Troy, New York which happens to be the residence of CAC executive director, Heather "Hezzie" Phillips. She also maintains a studio in the Beaver Mill in North Adams where CAC was founded in 1990 by Eric and Barbara Rudd. CAC has been in hiatus since ending its programming in September 2006 and was seeking a new permanent home. Phillips had researched a number of possible sites before the potential move to Notre Dame Church. So when the deal fell through in North Adams there was a backup plan.

When it was announced, last fall, that CAC had been the winning bid among several proposals to develop the former church property there was some skepticism. Several years ago the Rudds diminished their role in administering the CAC which established an independent board leasing space in the Beaver Mill complex. There was ongoing difficulty in adequately funding, administering, and programming CAC. How would that change if CAC found a new home which would require even greater fundraising efforts? There is also a perception that under the administration of Mayor John Barrett 111 the city is difficult to do business with. While nearby Pittsfield has made great strides and is committed to an image as an "arts city" with the successful Storefront Artists Project, the development of the Colonial Theatre and Barrington Stage, the relocation of Ferrin Gallery, new restaurants including the upscale Spice, with the exception of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams appears to be lagging.

There are still too many vacant commercial spaces on Main and Eagle Streets. In Pittsfield similar vacant properties were creatively leased to the artist run Storefront Artists Project over the past few years. This brought much needed life to the largely dormant downtown. It provided a great opportunity for artists. As has been demonstrated repeatedly when artists claim abandoned and downtrodden properties and neighborhoods, gentrification and commercial development inevitably follows. But there has to be a simultaneous political and development plan to maximize grass roots, artist motivated initiatives. Too often, historically, when artists through their sweat equity develop industrial/ loft spaces in tough neighborhoods, they inevitably get pushed out by rising rents, increased property values, and greater tax burdens. The pattern is that artists migrate to other poor neighborhoods and the process starts all over again.

With CAC out of the mix the city is now negotiating with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts which hopes to purchase the rectory building for use as its Alumni offices. In the past few years MCLA has expanded its commitment to the arts and has an important downtown presence in its successful Gallery 51 on Main Street. And, this fall, North Adams Antiques opened next to Gallery 51 and has a small gallery as a part of its space. In North Adams there is also Kolok Gallery and in the Eclipse Mill, an artist/ loft building, there is the owner managed, Eclipse Gallery, the Brill Gallery, the Pottery Studio of Gail and Phil Sellers, and the book store of Grover Askins. In nearby Adams is the artist run Greylock Gallery. Losing the potential of a permanent home and programming for CAC is a devastating setback for the emerging but struggling arts community.

As reported in the North Adams Transcript, on December 8, there was a good deal of name calling and finger pointing in an acrimonious meltdown. "I'm really angry and bitter," Mayor Barrett told the Transcript. "We were warned by Eric Rudd and we were warned by Michael Meehan (a developer) not to get involved with them. We wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. They've really messed up- they already had that deal in the works in order to make a purchase just days after we parted ways. They've duped people locally, just in the same way they tried to do with the city."

A press release from CAC stated that "The City was trying to juggle a difficult deal. The Notre Dame Church building presented some problems that were slowing the whole process down, and the City couldn't find a buyer that was willing to take on the responsibility of developing it. They were pushing us to sign a contract without giving us assurances that these issues would be resolved."

As a part of its bid to develop the Notre Dame property CAC requested that members of the arts community write letters to the Office of Community Development on its behalf. "Those letters were sincere," Barrett stated to the Transcript. "They were mostly from the artist community backing the organization. They used these people. What they have done is unethical and morally wrong, especially because it involved so many members of the community. They've wronged Eric Rudd, their founder, who they failed to pay, and they've wronged the artist community."

"Quite frankly we were shocked," Phillips stated. "All parties had been very patient with the process throughout this project. The city had come to the end of its timeline with the Diocese, and said they needed to be on a fast track. We had just sent a contract that asked for an agreement of City approval for our use, and were waiting for their go ahead to send our deposit and instead received this news." CAC had accepted a prior proposal to purchase the rectory for $200,000 on September 17 and on November 28 the city and Arch Street (the developer) rescinded the offer. On December 3 CAC announced a decision to move to Troy, New York.

What a mess seems to be the appropriate response of the disappointed Northern Berkshire Arts Community. Once a struggling arts organization or venue is lost it is gone forever. It reduces the vital critical mass and synergy involved in community development. Rather than the step forward represented by plans for a permanent home and renewed energy for CAC this represents two steps back. Instead of finger pointing and name calling the city has to get on track in creating a more productive climate for development both commercial and non profit. The crucial point, as has been demonstrated in Pittsfield and other communities, is that the arts are good for business.

Even within the arts community there are mixed signals about why we have gathered in North Adams. For most individuals the primary attraction was affordable artist/ loft housing and other options of affordable real estate. Being close to Mass MoCA, Williams College, and the Clark was a perk for many that have moved here but, so far, connecting the dots and forging a working relationship has been a frustratingly slow process. There appears to be no cohesive blue print or game plan for the development of a viable and expanding arts community beyond the highly visible expansion of Mass MoCA. There is an apathetic, trickle down theory that the viability of this major museum complex will serendipitously result in a vibrant arts community. Having CAC leave the city in such a dramatic and contentious manner is evidence that such projections are just wishful thinking.

The loss of CAC impacts me personally. It played a significant role in bringing Astrid and I to North Adams and in making the decision to become a part of the community. A number of years ago I met with Tom Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art, and reported his plans to develop Mass MoCA in Art News and Art New England. I continued to follow the story through the years of struggle that followed. We were invited, on several occasions, to spend weekends at CAC as a part of its programming. We came to know Eric and Barbara as colleagues and friends and shared in their extraordinary vision. His entrepreneurial skills have proved to be remarkable. Eventually, we bought a unit in the Eclipse Mill which he developed. It wasn't easy negotiating a build out with an artist/ developer but we continue to maintain a close relationship.

Our visits to CAC proved to be remarkable. We found an active group of artists in the vast spaces of the Beaver Mill as temporary summer residents. They came for periods of intensive studio work and many took advantage of the unique materials and facilities including the large format, monotype press which Eric designed. Often this activity seemed to be carried on round the clock. The program included a meal plan with an in house chef. As well as dormitory space rented from MCLA. There was an active program for visiting curators, artists and critics which was how we were invited. Through personal contacts Eric brought in top level art world celebrities including Krens and a close friend, the now deceased curator, Walter Hopps. Typically, these individuals gave presentations to small groups and often were available for a round of studio visits. There was a gallery as a part of the program largely focusing on the artists that passed through and worked at CAC. There was ongoing grant writing and fund raising to support CAC and eventually the Rudds stepped down from a day to day role leading to an independent board. This is essentially the organization which is now relocating to Troy.

In response to the accusations by Mayor Barrett that Phillips, and CAC President, Emily Daunis, had "used" the local art community in a manner that was "unethical and morally wrong" they posted the following communication to Forum an e mail based medium for dialogue in the Northern Berkshire arts community.

To The Forum and Community of North Adams,

We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks for the support and enthusiasm you all have extended to the CAC in our quest for a new home in NAMA. Sadly, we must let you know that Notre Dame will not be the new location of the CAC. As you may know the CAC was cut out of the deal to acquire both the Rectory and Church, and it is in the best interest of the organization to decline the City's offer to simply donate the church.

This is primarily due to considerable code related complications with the structure and its use, which the City would not allow time to responsibly address. Instead, the City attempted to rush the CAC into a contract after providing it over 2 months late. Further, the hastily drawn draft contract we finally received failed to address even basic purchase contingencies, such as zoning and closing date, and did not contain the easement for preservation of the church.

In an attempt to clear up the contract submitted, our lawyer returned a revised edition that included all necessary information. The City did not return her calls and email and flat out refused to even speak to her, saying that lawyers had a tendency to hold up progress on deals. Given the handling of the project by the City thus far, the CAC could not enter a legal agreement under such circumstances.

It is enormously frustrating for us, considering all the time and effort that went into this project, to watch as actions beyond our control mean that our community will not reap the rewards we had envisioned and planned for. We have worked diligently to keep the CAC in its hometown of North Adams; but must put our organizational mission and health before our location. Throughout this past year we have explored building options
though-out the Berkshires, Southern Vermont, and New York State and saw the Notre Dame Project through two major revisions at the request of the City, but in the end were not willing to take on a potentially major liability to the organization without being allowed basic due diligence.

Along with your help we have had numerous professionals from across the state consult and guide the process and we would like to specifically thank: Jason Schupbach & Richard Graf at The Massachusetts Cultural Council, Arch Street Development, Blackstone Block Architects, David Westall Architects, Bill Meranti and the Building Department, Anita Patel of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and Chris Swindlehurst.

While this chapter of the CAC is coming to a close, another is beginning. We have been successful in purchasing a pair of buildings in Troy, NY listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This purchase will allow us to continue our mission as an organization despite setbacks here, and redevelop historically significant buildings in an area with a blossoming art scene and supportive local government. We continue to think of North Adams as our home and, after our start up time in Troy, we would like to initiate partnerships to program community events and shows back in North Adams as well.

In the end - Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! to all the community members in North Adams who have provided time, energy, and funds to the CAC over the past 17 years. You have all been the true momentum behind the CAC's long and successful history here in the Berkshires. You will be our honored guests whenever you can make it over the hill to Troy. We will keep everyone here updated as to our progress in our new home, and hope to see you at future events.

Warm regards,

Emily and Hezzie

If you have any further questions, comments, or concerns please feel free to contact us at: info@thecac.org

(In response to a brief note posted to Forum by Jason Morin)

Jason

Thanks for the kind note, and the forum post.

I do want to reiterate that, despite the fact we are moving our main operations to Troy, we still consider North Adams our home, warts and all.

We will continue to program "off campus" with our peer organizations around this area (and welcome all collaborative suggestions.)

I, personally, can not give up on a town with so much possibility. I will continue to keep my studio at the Beaver Mill, and you will continue to see me at the occasional event.

I am obviously not happy about the local government, but we all know it is not the government in this town that makes the art (and tourist) community thrive. It is the individuals who have contributed their energy and creativity and vision.

Hezzie
Executive Director
Contemporary Artists Center


The Contemporary Artists Center

All images are courtesy of the author.


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