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Leaving 30 towns richer in the arts

By Michelle Cerulli
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2011

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Jan Patterson, executive director of the Hudson Area Arts Alliance, calls her long career in community arts “completely unintentional.’’

The nonprofit alliance began as a volunteer group in the 1980s, and Patterson says she never dreamed that heading it would become her full-time job, or that it would end up providing students and adults from more than 30 communities with programs such as River’s Edge Players, Pro Musica Youth Chorus, and the Community Arts Series,

Now, after nearly 25 years of involvement, Patterson will retire at the end of the year.

“The organization has grown tremendously,’’ said Patterson, a petite woman who speaks slowly and deliberately. “It’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s become a much bigger job. It’s time to turn it over.’’

Patterson’s passion for the arts began long before she moved to Hudson some 30 years ago when her husband, Ken, started working for Digital Equipment Corp. in Maynard. She grew up playing clarinet and piano, and pursued degrees in music and music education. After her move to Hudson, Patterson gave piano lessons, directed choral groups, and played the organ at church.

In the late 1980s, with two sons in the Hudson school system, Patterson joined a small group of parents and teachers with the common goal of bringing more cultural programs to students. She volunteered to organize and find funding through local cultural councils. The group began operating as the Hudson Schools Cultural Committee, working with the district to host artists and performers.

“We wanted students to have the opportunity to see the same artists and have the same experience,’’ Patterson said.

The committee quickly decided to extend its outreach from the schools to the broader community, and officially became the Hudson Area Arts Alliance in 1990. Patterson applied for funding from various organizations, including the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency that funds arts and other initiatives through a number of grant programs.

In 1997, the agency awarded the Hudson alliance its Commonwealth Award, the state’s highest honor in the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences, and described the organization as “a model of grass-roots community collaboration,’’ and “outstanding in fostering cultural activities and arts education programs that have broadened the quality of life for local residents.’’

Now, Patterson and her staff of three provide education programs for Hudson’s schools and arts management services for the town, as well as community arts programs for Marlborough residents, from their unassuming two-office setup on the second floor of Hudson’s school administration building. Thousands of students and adults of all ages have participated in its programming, from summer drama workshops to community bands to youth choruses.

“Seeing so many children be able to be involved in the arts has been the best part,’’ said Patterson, her blue eyes lighting up. “Some former young adults are now in our plays as adults. Every once in a while, an alum will pop up. We’ve fostered a generation.’’

Sarah Worrest, who grew up in Hudson and studied directing at New York University, first met Patterson when she joined the Pro Musica Youth Chorus at age 8.

She now teaches music and drama in Hudson, and has been a director for the arts alliance’s Summer Drama Workshop for the past 11 years.

“It has been really neat to transition my relationship with Jan,’’ from child and teacher to collaborating adults, she said. “I feel very lucky that she has been a part of my life.

“I don’t think that my career in directing would be the same without her support,’’ added Worrest, whose mother also works for the arts alliance. “And I know that she is a huge part of my musical career.’’

Deborah Martin-Hardy, vice president of the arts alliance’s board of directors, has also worked with Patterson for more than a decade. She said she has great respect for Patterson’s tireless efforts.

“Under her leadership, the arts alliance has touched thousands of lives, providing access for children and adults to participate in a wide variety of arts and cultural activities,’’ Martin-Hardy said. “Her legacy is a thriving organization that continues to entertain, engage, and educate our community.’’

Patterson seems amazed by the number and variety of students, adults, artists, and performers the arts alliance has attracted.

“I have moments that I know I’m going to miss it,’’ Patterson said. “I’m going to miss the people. But we’re in a good place. When I look back, I remember thinking, ‘Gee, we’d really like to have the same artists go to different schools and bring them to the community in the evening so adults can enjoy them.’

“I surely hope we’re able to continue the programs we’ve had and the collaboration we’ve had with Hudson, the schools, and the city of Marlborough.’’

Patterson said she is looking forward to slowing down and having more time for travel and family, especially as her first grandchild is on the way. She will continue to direct a youth chorus for the arts alliance. When asked about her successor, Patterson said the board of directors will be making that decision in the coming weeks.

“I’ve gained tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction from my community arts career,’’ Patterson wrote in her retirement letter to friends and colleagues. “The position has combined my passion for the arts and the community, offering more possibilities than I ever could have imagined.’’