BRATTLEBORO — Those planning the expansion of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center expect to increase the number of visitors downtown - substantially.
“Our current expectation,” said Danny Litchtenfeld, the museum's executive director, “is that our annual attendance will double - from 16,000 today to roughly 35,000 - when this transformation is complete.”
While these numbers are early estimates, Litchtenfeld said that they're based on the experience of museum expansion projects in other New England communities, such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Mass., and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine.
Jodi Joseph, director of communications with MASS MoCA, echoed the arts' role in contributing to vibrant communities.
According to Joseph, Berkshire County has a strong tourist and cultural economy.
Yet in the 1980s, when MASS MoCA was first conceived, North Adams was not part of the that cultural and tourist pie. The museum opened in 1999.
North Adams - long a working-class, industrial manufacturing hub of the region - was recently reeling from the loss of Sprague Electric Company, for decades its economic engine.
MASS MoCA was created, in part, to connect North Adams to the rest of the cultural happenings in the Berkshires, such as the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Jacob's Pillow in Becket, and Tanglewood in Lenox.
At the time, she said, contemporary artists were making larger pieces that required larger galleries.
North Adams offered the perfect mix: it had space in the recently vacant mill complex and proximity to other cultural events.
Referring to the former industrial buildings that house the museum, Joseph said, “MASS MoCA was born because of these buildings.”
The idea was to fill the former manufacturing spaces with art “and to get the heart of a town beating again,” she said.
MASS MoCA as an organization has worked hard to connect to the city and wider region, Joseph said. The center routinely partners with community organizations. Some of these collaborations include working with the local schools.
According to Joseph, for 20 years, the museum has been a large part of the local schools' arts curriculum. The center works with approximately 2,500 students, three times a year.
The museum also hosts a teen invitational. MASS MoCA also helps fundraise alongside local charities such as the Berkshire Food Project, which hosts a free meal about a mile from the museum.
Joseph said the museum has been featured in periodicals such as Architectural Digest. In 2017, the magazine named North Adams as its Arts Capital of New England.
This type of publicity helps put the city on the map, she said. But the museum also partners with other centers such as the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. or the Bennington Museum in Bennington to persuade people “not to breeze in and out” to see one museum, but to take their time and stay a while - and in so doing, stimulate the local economy with their purchases.
Fun is the secret ingredient at MASS MoCa, said Joseph, who grew up in the area.
Joseph said her 90-year-old grandmother reminds her of this every time she visits the museum.
“Her face lights up,” said Joseph.
In an email to The Commons, Julie Hashem, community development director for Rockland, Maine, shared some of her insights into how the arts has changed her community.
“The Farnsworth Art Museum, with its world-class collection of American Art, was an early anchor in Rockland's creative economy,” Hashem wrote. “Arts of all varieties are now thriving there - including fine arts, performing arts, culinary arts.”
Rockland and its coterie of museums now actively promote the city as the “Arts Capital of Maine” in promotional materials and signpost banners.
Since the Farnsworth opened, more organizations and businesses have joined the community's economic and cultural mix.
“The Maine Center for Contemporary Art, 20-plus galleries, the beautifully restored Strand Theatre, the North Atlantic Blues Festival, award-winning chefs, and makers of all varieties now call Rockland home,” she said.
According to Hashem, “Rockland has embraced the arts - perhaps because there is art in our historic industries, too. Whether it is how a schooner captain trims the sails, a lobsterman reads the weather, or a manufacturer creates something beautiful in its efficiency or function - there is an artist in all of us.”