The Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge is opening its doors to host more cultural nonprofits. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge is set to host a half-dozen new partners, including an organization that itself works to find spaces for the creative arts.

That organization, the Cambridge Community Center for the Arts, is wrapping up a two-year residency in space donated by BioMed Realty at 500 Kendall St. in its Canal District Kendall. In January, it will be one group moving its programming into the Multicultural Arts Center for a six-month test that leaders hope can extend far into the future.

“We’re thrilled that the connections are being forged,” Multicultural Arts Center managing director Adria Katz said Friday, while Dan Marshall, the CCCA’s co-founder and executive artistic director, called it “a monumental partnership.”

“We are all coming together to support each other and use a magnificent building to a higher extent than what it’s been used for before with one organization running it,” Marshall said. “The combining of forces allows us to do more for the community and to support each other’s organization. It will make all of us stronger and last longer as we emerge out of this pandemic.”

Complementary uses

The CCCA expected to be in otherwise vacant, under-construction BioMed space for only three months starting in February 2020, but as the coronavirus pandemic struck that grew into two years. “It became very clear that Dan was doing such amazing work. He exceeded all expectations,” said Andrea Windhausen, community manager for BioMed.

During that time, the CCCA was able to use its free BioMed space to house programs that will now move with it to the Arts Center: The Flavor Continues, an organization dedicated to preserving and evolving street and club dance culture; the Tempo International Rhythm Section, which is run out of the nonprofit Teens Against Gang Violence; the music collaborative Eureka Ensemble; and the Cambridge Youth Steel Orchestra, a program of the Caribbean-themed Cambridge Carnival International.

Brian Pistols of The Flavor Continues teaches a class Dec. 15, 2020, at the Cambridge Community Center for the Arts’ space at BioMed Realty. (Photo: Bao Pham via CCCA)

Katz and Marshall met through the Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition, which has an arts-and-culture subcommittee. Katz spoke there over the summer of wanting to better activate space where “what we usually do is focus on our weekend events and performances and our gallery.” Marshall approached her to see if there was a way to partner.

Things moved swiftly: From that initial contact in early September came a Sept. 17 partnership meeting. “It became very obvious that we fit each other like a glove. Our organization does more community arts, classes, rehearsals and some performing arts, while the Multicultural Arts Center is prolific in the performing and visual arts. Our visions are very similar but the offerings we do for the most part are different,” Marshall said. “Together with all of our staffs, we’d be able to more easily and economically operate together.”

With approval by boards came an Oct. 22 proposal for a $20,000 grant from the Cambridge Community Foundation’s Cultural Capital Fund to pay for the move and upgrade the Multicultural Arts Center’s systems to accommodate the growth. Marshall said his organization’s own scheduling and ticketing software is being upgraded to help coordinate use of space inside the Multicultural Arts Center.

Visibility and engagement

The organizations’ presence may stay at-will; there is no formal lease arrangement now, Katz and Marshall said. But Katz did not see the new arrangement in terms of revenue.

Katz

“We’re working on a kind of can-we-break-even kind of expectation,” Katz said. “This will bring visibility and community engagement and partnership to the center, which is a high priority as we’re doing an annual [fundraising] campaign. It’s an important piece for us to be engaged and support artists in our community in a way that people appreciate – and hopefully then will philanthropically invest in them.”

The nonprofit Multicultural Arts Center was founded in 1978, and in 1985 moved into its 8,250-square-foot home at 41 Second St., a former Middlesex County Courthouse designed by architect Charles Bulfinch in the late 1880s. As the center’s website explains, even with favorable terms on a 99-year lease set decades ago, it pays about $130,000 annually in rent and a share of the operating costs at the Bulfinch Square Complex. That leads to a need to fundraise and, in years past, a reliance on event rentals as well as the arts. In 2019, as city councillors looked at giving Cambridge’s annual $200,000 gift to the center, they were alarmed that only 4,882 out of 9,426 visits in a year were directed toward a creative purpose, with nearly an equal number of people there to use the rented space for functions such as weddings.

The executive director at the time, Shelley Neill, retired at the end of January. “She had told her board maybe even two years ago that she was committed to retiring right at her 22nd year at the organization, but also upon her 70th birthday,” said Jason Weeks, executive director of Cambridge Arts, in August. “Of course, nobody could have predicted the pandemic, and it was a little quieter than it probably could or should have been.”

As Katz takes on leadership at the center permanently – until recently she was interim managing director – the new partner organizations were something new to figure out. “We’re going to make space for however many people we can and try to work together,” Katz said.

Safe haven at BioMed

For Cambridge Carnival International’s Nicola Williams, the CCCA and Multicultural Arts Center may be stopgaps on the way to establishing a permanent, bricks-and-mortar Caribbean Cultural Center in Cambridge – but they’re safe havens she appreciates. “We couldn’t find a place to run the program. The Cambridge Center for Community Arts opened their doors to us, and it’s been a great partnership and collaboration,” Williams said. “With the opportunity at the Multicultural Arts Center, we’ll have a place to continue our programs. It’s one roof to offer such a variety of activities that are community based, and we’re really looking forward to this multicultural, multidisciplinary collaboration.”

The steel pans used by the youth musicians are large, and now the program has additional entry-level practice pans Williams said the kids can “bang the hell out of” while they learn the skill – all creating a storage problem that has meant trips to Dorchester to pick up the instruments when they’re needed. The CCCA and Multicultural Arts Center are answers to that problem.

As excited as he was about the move, Marshall wanted to make sure BioMed got credit for “the amazing service it has done for the community” in providing an avenue for dozens of CCCA performances, classes and workshops.

“They deserve major accolades. They gave us two years of free space – and not just space, but a home that allowed us to do so much for the community,” Marshall said. “They were real partners, the best landlord I’ve ever had and more than I ever could wish for.”

Perfect ending

Windhausen, of BioMed, said the space CCCA empties in January will likely go on to be traditional retail or conference space now that construction is done on the building overhead. “The space was not designed for that much music and sound,” unlike at 585 Third St., a lab tower BioMed is building with 40,000 square feet for arts and culture at its base, she said. “We’re putting a lot of care and effort into that, but it naturally wasn’t done in this space. I would love to continue giving it to arts groups, but I don’t think that’s feasible.”

Instead, BioMed was delighted by how things worked out with the Multicultural Arts Center, including the perfect timing.

“I couldn’t in a million years have forecast how great of an ending this partnership with Dan was going to have,” Windhausen said.