NEA chairman Rocco Landesman speaks at Creative Communities Exchange in North Adams

By Lesley Ann Beck

“Artists need to act as a constituency,” said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) during his remarks at the Creative Communities Exchange event held last week at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.

The Creative Communities Exchange, a day-and-a-half of workshops and talks, engaged more than two hundred participants—artists and administrators representing a myriad of creative organizationsand culminated in a talk by Landesman. The conference, which was held Thursday and Friday at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, was a collaboration between New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) and Berkshire Creative, and attracted individuals from across New England. The event included thirty-two workshops presented by creative and cultural community leaders, designed to share successful strategies and useful tools, as well as networking opportunities.

Berkshire Creative co-chair Kevin Sprague of Studio Two in Lenox, Massachusetts, noting that everyone at the Creative Communities Exchange had “certainly brought their A game,” thanked the participants for offering “interesting and optimistic approaches to the challenges ahead,” in his remarks at the closing luncheon.

Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) executive director Anita Walker also made remarks at Friday’s luncheon, commending the participants for “engaging in collaboration and partnership.” She spoke about the public sector, specifically the MCC, as an important partner. “We act on the part of the citizens; we ensure there is public value.” Walker described the NEA as just such a partner on the federal level as she introduced Landesman, who has helmed the NEA since 2009.

“Art works,” began Landesman, citing the NEA motto as he took the podium. He then praised MASS MoCA and the city of North Adams as an important example of “creative placemaking.” In this day and age, he continued, “art is one of the few things that has to be consumed in person,” and place informs arts, a concept he likened to the idea of terroir in winemaking. Art, he said, reflects its unique local characteristics. We need artists to invest in the places where they live, he said, and the places to invest in artists.

Landesman then referenced a Gallup poll conducted last year that revealed that the top three characteristics that create community attachment for the residents are social offerings, openness, and aesthetics. The arts, he added, contribute to social cohesion and civic engagement. “Art creates community attachment.”

Speaking of a new NEA program called Our Town, Landesman explained that the program highlights “creative placemaking” projects, those that engage a community or neighborhood in the arts, one example being the creative use of repurposed buildings in urban areas. “Success as we’ve seen in North Adams in replicable,” he said, referring to the creation of MASS MoCA and the growing arts community. Artists, he said, are a vital part of the community.

The creative economy is vitally important, he said, and “artists need to behave like a constituency,” coming together and speaking as one voice politically.

Rebecca Blunk, executive director of NEFA, also spoke at the luncheon, commenting that “the creative economy movement is global, but we know the action really happens locally,” as she awarded the first of two Creative Economy awards at the luncheon; the first recipient was the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP) in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Sandra Burton of Williams College presented the second award to Project Storefront of New Haven, Connecticut. The Creative Economy awards both included checks for $3,500.

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