Finding the Center

The Northampton Center for the Arts looks for a new home after three decades on New South Street.

Comments (9)
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t always mean you’re ready for it. Chat with Northampton Center for the Arts Director Penny Burke about the coming year, and you get the sense that her job must take patience and perseverance. When it began, the Center signed a 30-year lease. This year, the lease is up. Not even three decades’ worth of advance knowledge, though, guarantees that there’s an ideal place—or any place at all—to move to.

When the Center for the Arts was created in the early ’80s as a non-profit to present arts events in the D.A. Sullivan school building, the organization became a tenant, with the city of Northampton as landlord. It has since played a helpful role in the arts scene, especially as an alternative venue for performers looking to put on a show on their own terms. The Center has long seemed synonymous with the impressive ballroom and galleries that reside on the old school building’s third floor, but the current challenge makes it quite clear that the organization and the space are two different things.

Burke, who’s directed the Center since December of 2004, is a fast-paced, direct speaker, animated and passionate. That passion is part of what’s enabled her to pull off an ever-bigger First Night Northampton, a task she first undertook for New Year’s Eve 2001-2, then resumed as Center director. That’s a herculean task, but this year, all that energy is driving the search to find the Center a new home.

That hasn’t happened, but it’s not for a lack of trying. “In 2006,” Burke says, “We met with other arts organizations to talk about what would be an ideal venue for artists, not just for performances, but for things like rehearsals, and for art exhibitions.”

Since then, the Center has investigated the possibility of inhabiting new digs at the Roundhouse (down the hill behind the Academy of Music), St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street, and First Churches Northampton. The Roundhouse effort ran into trouble because of the abandoned project for a hotel just next door, which led to litigation that was then still pending. With St. John Cantius, Burke says, some unusual things came to light. “Apparently, the bishop has final say over what goes on there, even after it’s been sold.”

Despite the potential appeal of a Northampton Arts Bishop, that’s apparently more possible involvement than the Center is willing to risk.

The second church possibility, First Churches Northampton, on Main Street, seemed all but set to happen. News articles reported that the Center had all but measured for draperies, and thought the situation was ideal. “It unravelled,” says Burke, “because of internal issues with the church.”

Yet another possibility existed: the Center was offered the chance to buy its space in the D.A. Sullivan building.

What sounds at first like an easy, perfect solution proves to be a sore spot. Burke’s delivery hits a peak when she explains that the Center’s board decided against buying the space because the atmosphere in the building, which now houses a few commercial clients and a lot of condominiums, “was not conducive to housing an arts organization.”

That small phrase is the result of a tangle of complicated relations between the building’s residents.


When Burke talks about the Center’s struggles with its neighbors in the D.A. Sullivan building, there’s a clear sense of frustration. Burke explains that the developer who’s owned the building since the early 2000s, Rockwell Allen, no longer has the most prominent voice because of the trustees representing owners of the living spaces in the building.

In recent years, she explains, “the condominium association made rules so stringent that it would be nearly impossible for us to be seen.”

She walks over and points at a large neon sign resting in the corner. “We had that made, for around $800, I think. It wasn’t up 12 hours until we were told we had to take it down.

“We’re invisible because of the lack of exterior signage and the dedicated entrance we used to have.”

The conflict, Burke says, arose from the terms of the original contract. “[The Center] doesn’t pay for upkeep on the common areas we share with the residents—things like elevators and parking lots. The residents said, ‘Why are we paying for upkeep for the Center?’”

They said, too, that visitors to the Center weren’t “respectful” of the common areas they used.

“At one point,” Burke says, “the condominium association hired an attorney to ‘whip us back into shape.’”

Though such things can seem like a tempest in a teapot, Burke says that they’re symptomatic of the reality of Northampton’s current attitude toward the arts versus its reputation as a mecca for art and artists.

“I haven’t talked about it a lot, because I’ve thought it was not productive, but I think it’s worth talking about.

“The situation with First Churches is a good example. That should have worked, but didn’t. A small number of parishioners didn’t feel comfortable sharing space with the arts center.”

Center for the Arts Assistant to the Director Amanda Hill, a young artist whose paintings currently hang in the Center’s gallery space, chimes in. “It’s hard to get people to be receptive. Northampton is losing its artists. I see people going to Easthampton, to Florence.”

“And Holyoke,” adds Burke.

“It’s changing,” says Hill. “There’s a different kind of art.”

(Florence, though geographically separated, is a village technically within the city of Northampton.)

Burke continues, “In a way, Northampton has outgrown a small arts council. I don’t understand why our structure in the city isn’t more reflective of artists’ needs. There is no cohesive vision. Certain individuals who are comfortable in their positions are comfortable with the status quo.

“They’re not the majority, though—I wouldn’t be here knocking myself out if I didn’t think there was a lot of community spirit. It’s a lot of work, but it isn’t rocket science.”


In the coming year, the evolution of the Center for the Arts and of Burke’s position as First Night organizer stand to determine a significant part of the Northampton arts landscape. How the city and/or other arts organizations approach the monstrous task of organizing First Night, whether it’s parcelled out or centralized, stands to make or break an important part of the cultural calendar that employs a massive number of musicians and other artists.

The Center itself can get lost in the shuffle of venues and presenting organizations, but it’s especially important as a lower-stakes alternative to the usual places artists can turn, especially musicians who see a Northampton in which one large presenter, the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, controls several key places to play.

Partially in recognition of the Center’s role, the group Northampton Community Arts Trust formed in 2010 with a mission “to protect and ensure the long term vitality of the Northampton community through creation and conservation of downtown arts spaces.” The Trust’s board includes Burke, members of the Northampton Arts Council and members of other arts organizations.

The big question, says Burke, is, “Is this a community that wants an arts center? If you do, speak up!”•

Bye Bye Ballroom, with music from the O-Tones, food, cocktails and fancy dress, happens Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m., $25 plus cash bar, Northampton Center for the Arts, 17 New South St., Northampton, (413) 584-7327.

Center for the Arts programming runs through March. For a full calendar of events, visit

Comments (9)
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Thank you to Penny Burke for describing the "reality of Northampton’s current attitude toward the arts versus its reputation as a mecca for art and artists" in James Heflin’s article “Finding the Center.” It’s an old narrative: artists bring audiences—along with their appetites, shopping lists, and paychecks—and infuse a city with vitality and income. In time, the same artists cannot afford rising rents and mortgage rates for work or living spaces so they are squeezed toward or beyond the margins of the same community they’ve helped to build. The consequences of this privilege-catering dynamic are substantive and profound—leaving a community that’s smart to be proud of its reputation but too often unwilling to invest in the very forces to which it owes much of its livelihood. Decades pass and what’s left is a lovely shell of a city more focused on consumption, appearance, big names, and fine products but little interest in or practical support for the struggling artists and organizations that helped make its name. Whether we’re talking Soho or Noho, metropolis or suburbia, look around and count the number of mature artists who still make art (and aren’t independently wealthy) and still live and work there—or here.

The profound distance between reputation and reality is a primary reason numerous artists, including myself, have been forced to relocate away from Northampton during the past twenty or so years. There have been various community meetings—including those hosted at the Center for the Arts—where these issues were widely discussed, issues that continue to challenge just about every arts organization in the area. Notable survivors include the resilient (and brilliant) A.P.E. Ltd. Gallery which thrived in the face of a transplant and the tiny Upstairs Studio which still breathes largely thanks to the Fitzwilly's building’s forward–thinking management that’s watched many of its originally humble renters become local entrepreneurs that can now pay high rent for some of their loveliest spaces.

However, we cannot list the countless actors, dancers, vocalists, musicians, visual artists, writers, directors, designers and etc who we’ve lost in the past quarter century, or who longed to settle but were forced to other cities more hospitable to artists. When I could no longer afford to pay rent or buy a home in the area where I’d spent fifteen years, raised a child, performed, written a book, and taught writing, I finally chose to relocate well beyond the margins of the place I called home. Even so, I still teach here because once a home always a home is true in this case. But stories like mine abound and the homeless Center for the Arts is as metaphoric as it is diagnostic. What is the value of art and artists in our communities—for and beyond tourism? What are the needs of contemporary artists and arts administrators? How can we create and/or support already existent living, work, rehearsal, studio, office, and performance spaces that are affordable and sustainable? Are we a community that truly wants to support its artists—not just in theory, but in action?

Posted by Chivas Sandage on 1.23.13 at 16:02

“In a way, Northampton has outgrown a small arts council. I don’t understand why our structure in the city isn’t more reflective of artists’ needs. There is no cohesive vision. "

Thats it in a nutshell - well said Penny. It's well past time for the city to step up to the plate. The Northampton community has so much to offer and share. This is a civic issue. Where are our town leaders?

Posted by Andy Soles on 1.24.13 at 6:02

my impression is that there was inadequate concern when northampton artists began moving out of the city (out of necessity) to less expensive studio and living quarters, and they still brought their work into northampton to show/perform - likely at a financial loss - but, because of the city's reputation as a vibrant arts center. now, however, that those other towns (easthampton, holyoke, pittsfield) are growing their own successful venues with substantial public support for the arts, and the veneer/prestige of the northampton arts scene is fading, artists are increasingly showing their work where they actually live and create. that the northampton center for the arts cannot relocate itself, despite years of thoughtful and aggressive planning by many individuals like burke, is essentially the most difficult to ignore symptom of a long-simmering systemic problem. it is a grave problem that threatens to undermine the city's cultural relevance and economic vitality.

Posted by Madeline Weaver Blanchette on 1.24.13 at 7:54

The Northampton Center for the Arts should relocate to Easthampton. Plenty of space, lots of support, tons of artists!

Posted by elteegee on 1.24.13 at 8:36

Thank you for highlighting a serious and troubling reality about the sorry state of city-wide support for the arts in Northampton -- a city profoundly shaped by the arts. Another example of this dynamic at play is the decision of the ThreshHold Cooperative, which is seeking to create a visionary new arts-and-activism center, to refocus their efforts in Turners Falls after two years of hard and ultimately fruitless work to secure space in Northampton. Turners Falls, a village of Montague, is home to the RiverCulture Project, which works to strengthen the creative and cultural industries in the Turners Falls area, and which is funded by the Town of Montague, local sponsors, and The Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In ThreshHold's words: "ThreshHold is a not-for-profit effort to transform a 35,000 sq. ft. historic mill building into a vibrant center for art, activism, and social entrepreneurship in Turners Falls, MA. Planned uses of the building include live-work, studio, workshop, performance, cooperative business incubation, and community meeting space. These spaces would in turn support a panoply of programming and projects such as artist residencies, workshop apprenticeship programs, a low-cost health clinic, and a community kitchen."

"ThreshHold is being organized by a group of area artists, activists, builders, and architects, divided into a core collective and a supporting development team. ThreshHold is the culmination of two years of work organizing to secure space in Northampton, MA against the inertia of an increasingly gentrified community. The organizers will incorporate as a management cooperative, seeded from the core collective, which will ultimately be made up of representatives from the various ub-cooperatives that will occupy the building."

To learn more about ThreshHold, see their website:

Posted by Sarah Bliss on 1.24.13 at 8:59

Yes, it's a grand Catch 22 as other people here have commented, so does not need to be repeated. The Northampton Center for the Arts has not only been a space available to artists to show and perform and rehearse in, but also an organization to support that through its many events. We, The O-Tones, have been involved for many years in First Night Northampton, the January annual party, and other events. We really hope the city steps up to help support this cause, this organization, and the events, as the individual artists are doing all we can just to survive and promote these events. We ourselves can't afford to take on the organzing task. Penny is amazing and dedicated and deserves huge kudos. Hopefully the community will support her to continue doing her grand work for our town and its art-loving residents and visitors.

Posted by The O-Tones on 1.24.13 at 9:14

While agreeing with this article about the need for full support of the arts in Northampton, I do wish to correct any idea that First Churches Northampton is part of the problem. We continue to offer strong support as a regular venue for performing arts, by offering our space for free as a prime venue every First Night, and we have continued to hold other events promoted by the Center for the Arts after the acquisition talks ended. First Churches offers affordable space for over 25 groups involved not only in the performing arts, but also Twelve Step groups, social activists, dance, yoga, a food coop, homeless outreach, food pantry, and many other community activities. We share our space with everyone. Many people were concerned about what would happen to many of the social service programs if we sold a major part of our building.

I am new to the church and was not involved in the dialog and have heard many differing opinions regarding why the Center did not move to First Churches. Our theological tradition is to include all members in decision making rather than making top-down decisions. This kind of process takes a great deal of time and patience. We never reached a point of taking a vote and many in the congregation had not made up their minds at the time the Arts Center decided to formally end discussion. I hope people understand what a major decision it is to sell a significant part of its real estate for an organization that has nearly 400 years of history at this site.

On behalf of the congregation I wish the Center for the Arts well and hope they will continue their fine work in Northampton.


Rev. Todd Weir

Pastor, First Churches Northampton

Posted by Todd Weir on 1.25.13 at 15:56

I would like to second the comments made by the Reverend Todd Weir and take responsibility for being expedient in my own description about what happened during discussions with First Churches. The decision-making process was much more complicated than it appears in this article. It involved hours of meetings among various groups and thoughtful conversation over a period of many months. The relationship between the Center for the Arts and First Churches has been long and fruitful. Aside from First Night, both organizations have overlapping commitments to supporting community arts groups and activities. I expect that we will continue to work together.

Penny Burke, Executive Director

Northampton Center for the Arts

Posted by Penny Burke on 1.26.13 at 3:33

One friend, too shy to comment here but one of Noho's established, award-winning artists, read this & wrote to say, "Yep. I'm barely hanging on by my fingernails, myself." Another profoundly brilliant “veteran” of the arts wrote: “Interesting, first of all, that this article has provoked more comment than any I have seen in a long while--clearly a nerve is being struck. But for me, that makes it all the sadder, a sadness that shades into comedy (yesterday I was reading the piece aloud to my co-workers, while we guffawed together)--because to me it's an old dead issue, at this point worthy more of satire than serious consideration. Northampton--and The Advocate!--sold out the arts a LONG time ago, and all along the way there have been people raising red flags about it, but the march to the boutiques--crying all the way to the bank--has continued apace. […] the deal is done. The arts of The Best Small Arts Town in America are begging for entry on the steps of various local churches! Ay Yi Yi!”

Posted by Chivas Sandage on 1.28.13 at 22:08



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