Cash for culture

State grants going out to museums, theaters, and arts and education centers for repairs, expansions, and buildings

A worker, Bob Taggart, closes off a window on the second floor of the John Ball House, home to the Concord Art Association. A worker, Bob Taggart, closes off a window on the second floor of the John Ball House, home to the Concord Art Association. (Wendy Maeda / Globe Staff)
By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2009
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They have their shovels ready. Or, more precisely, their boilers and roofs are ripe for repair. Their offices and classrooms need expansion. And their grand visions - the kind that can boost the local economy - are ready to be realized.

Eighty-five cultural organizations statewide were awarded $12.4 million in Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund grants in May, and 10 of the successful applicants are west of Boston.

But as this year’s recipients get their Cultural Facilities Fund projects underway, they may be the last to do so. The program, which is a three-year-old state initiative jointly run by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and MassDevelopment, has not been funded for 2010 due to the budget crisis.

“The state has a lot of capital priorities - schools, roads, bridges - so we were really pleased that the governor invested in 2009 in this program, because the money is sorely needed,’’ said Massachusetts Cultural Council spokesman Greg Liakos. “But we just don’t have an indication yet whether he is thinking about continuing to invest in this fund. We just don’t know.’’

Combined, more than $1 million in matching grants was awarded to local nonprofits with immediate plans to undertake more than $2 million worth of construction, planning, and repairs. Most are part of long-term projects that together are estimated to total near $30 million.

The 10 projects range from a major expansion of the Concord Art Association ($170,000) and improvements to the building and stage at Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham ($218,000) to restoration of Coolidge Corner Theatre’s art deco ceiling mural ($36,000) in Brookline. Feasibility studies were also funded for establishing both a Massachusetts Air and Space Museum ($8,000) on the Lincoln-Bedford line and a potentially 25,000-square-foot cultural arts center in Newton ($27,000), both projects that could reshape the area’s cultural map.

Local grant recipients point out that loss of the fund in 2010 would not only hinder cultural offerings, but would have a ripple effect on the local economy.

Tower Hill Botanic Garden breaks ground on July 1 on a $7.5 million expansion that includes 24,000 square feet of additions such as a spectacular winter and aquatic garden, an indoor Limonaia (Lemon House) display garden, a new cafe, storage, and a reception area. Garden officials say they would not be this far along were it not for the $675,000 Cultural Facilities Fund grant they received in 2007.

“This grant was more than critical to our project,’’ said Tower Hill executive director John Trexler. “And all of our work is being done by local contractors. So clearly the money goes back into the regional economy.’’

Massachusetts Cultural Council numbers on the economic impact of funded projects bear out this argument. A recent analysis showed that the 120 organizations that received the $24 million awarded during the first two years of the Cultural Facilities Fund program hired 5,700 architects, engineers, contractors, and construction workers; created 577 new jobs; and invested nearly $840 million in Massachusetts through the purchase of new goods and services.

The report also stated that these organizations provide jobs for nearly 5,500 full-time workers in Massachusetts, draw some 16 million visitors annually (5 million from out of state), and generate $205 million in tourism-related revenues. But their continued presence often hinges on having adequate facilities to offer programming and generate revenue to fund operations.

“We’re not only adding more gallery, office, and classroom space to meet demand, we’re also installing a catering kitchen and an elevator, which will provide us with a sustainable stream of income through rentals for weddings and other events,’’ said Concord Art Association director Lili Ott. “This kind of income helps us better sustain ourselves.’’

Both Tower Hill and Amazing Things Arts Center are also installing kitchens they expect will boost rental income. “We take an entrepreneurial approach. As a nonprofit, you have to these days,’’ said Trexler of Tower Hill. “Everything we build and do here supports our educational mission but can also be rented or sold, and what we earn goes into our operating budget.’’

The majority of projects funded are expected to increase visitorship and programming, which, in turn, raises local spending by patrons.

“There are many theaters in Boston, but people come to us for an experience. They come for the beautiful seats, the great sound system, and the great atmosphere. The restoration of our ceiling mural will contribute to that,’’ said Denise Kasell, executive director of the not-for-profit Coolidge Corner Theatre. “This Grand Dame of an institution helps make Coolidge Corner a destination, and when people come they also shop and dine here. We are a magnet for the community.’’

Other funded projects in the area aim to increase audience reach beyond local borders. The $172,000 grant for improvements to the grounds of The Discovery Museums in Acton is for the first phase of a long-term master plan designed to transform the locally popular destination into a significant cultural draw regionally. Cambridge Seven Associates, the same architectural firm that helped redesign Boston Children’s Museum and the New England Aquarium, developed the plan.

“This particular grant is for the site for parking, signage, walkways, and better access,’’ said Lees Stuntz, president of The Discovery Museums’ board of directors. “It will make it easier for field trips to visit because the school buses will have better access. The goal is to also make the site a great place for people to come and use not just the buildings. We want to expand into the environment, make a connection to the conservation land that we abut, and make the site an attraction. And by becoming a more regional museum, that, by nature, will have an economic impact.’’

Two of the smaller grants awarded in the area could have the greatest impact on the local cultural landscape. The Bedford-based steering committee for the Massachusetts Air and Space Museum will use its $8,000 grant to further develop plans for building the museum in Lincoln near Hanscom Air Force Base.

“We’re very much interested in the opportunity to get students focused on math, technology, and science. The thrust will not only be to present state aviation history but also to be a teaching museum, and this is the pivot point when we decide if it can be done,’’ said Bill Deane, director and first vice president of the museum’s steering committee.

An initial study indicated that, if it succeeds, the museum would draw a significant amount of tourism dollars to the area while maintaining what Deane called “a soft footprint.’’

“Museums typically bring in off-peak travel, which is what our museum would do while providing a net economic benefit that the study estimated is significant,’’ he said.

The newly established Newton Cultural Alliance was awarded $27,000 to conduct a similar study on the construction of a cultural center in Newton that would include a professional auditorium, classrooms, rehearsal areas, and gallery space. The intent is to secure Newton’s spot on the cultural map.

“We have about 20 arts groups in Newton, but we’ve never had our own civic auditorium to showcase them. There’s a lot of arts activity in this city, and with a good facility, we can make Newton a cultural destination,’’ said Sachiko Isihara, executive director of the Suzuki School of Newton. The school is spearheading the effort along with New Philharmonia Orchestra and the Newton Symphony Orchestra.

But economic impact is only part of the story. In the end, area cultural organizations say it’s about art, history, and culture - and maintaining our cultural infrastructure.

The Newton Historical Society members are excited that the $218,000 received to restore and add an educational wing to the Durant-Kenrick House gains them no less than a whole new century to interpret. They are now housed in the 19th-century Jackson Homestead. The new 1732 property opens up the 18th century to them. They plan to develop related Revolutionary War school programs, an audio tour, a Colonial kitchen garden, and an outdoor historic orchard exhibit.

The New Repertory Theatre in Watertown may have a new building, but staff have been struggling with old and unreliable lighting and sound equipment in their experimental Black Box Theatre. Their grant of $26,000 for new equipment will allow them to produce and host a flurry of new cutting-edge works.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society in Lincoln, which received $145,000 to create new classroom space at the Joppa Flats Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Newburyport, is gearing up to double its educational programming for adults and youths. And, yes, even the recipient of the least flashy grant is excited about the prospects it opens up. The New Art Center in Newton received $50,000 for a new boiler for the former cathedral it occupies.

“It’s actually really important to us, because replacing our boiler is a $100,000 project that we can’t just take out of our budget, and we can put the money we’ll save by having a more efficient system into programming,’’ said executive director Mindy Gregory Sieber.

None of the recipients said a halt in support for the Cultural Facilities Fund would end their efforts. But many believe it would make fund-raising more difficult. The matching grants motivate other local donors and attract funds from out-of-state. Winning the state’s support, they say, has great sway.

“Having the stamp of approval of the Massachusetts Cultural Council is critical because it sends out the message to everyone - to corporate donors, private donors, and foundations - that the state sees us as a worthwhile project,’’ said Claudia Veitch, director of development for The Discovery Museums. “It does everything for us.’’

Massachusetts grants

In the three years since the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund was founded, more than $3.35 million in matching grants has been awarded to cultural organizations in the western suburbs. This year’s local recipients include:  $218,000

Newton Historical Society, Newton

$218,000 to restore the 1732 Durant-Kenrick House, one of only a few pre-Revolutionary houses remaining in Newton.

Amazing Things Arts Center, Framingham

$218,000 to continue renovation of the center’s historic firehouse home, including roof repairs, rewiring, and construction of a new stage. 

The Discovery Museums, Acton

$172,000 to improve the grounds, access, and parking facilities on the 4.5-acre campus that is home to The Children’s Discovery Museum and The Science Discovery Museum. 

Concord Art Association, Concord

$170,000 for a major renovation that includes an elevator, a catering kitchen, and a new classroom, gallery, office, and collections storage. 

Massachusetts Audubon Society, Lincoln

$145,000 to create new classroom space at the Joppa Flats Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Newburyport that will dramatically increase programming.

New Art Center, Newton

$50,000 to replace the center’s aging, inefficient oil furnace used to heat the 11,000-square-foot former church with an efficient gas furnace. The center also received a $4,000 systems replacement plan grant, a new program of the fund that aims to help cultural nonprofits avoid surprises by planning ahead for maintenance.

Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline

$36,000 for restoration of the theater’s art deco ceiling mural to its original glory.

Newton Cultural Alliance, Auburndale

$27,000 for a feasibility study on construction of a potential 25,000-square-foot arts center in Newton.

New Repertory Theatre, Watertown

$26,000 to replace aging lighting and sound systems in its experimental Black Box Theatre.

Massachusetts Air and Space Museum, Bedford

$8,000 to develop a facility concept for a new air and space museum on the Lincoln-Bedford line.