Sunday, June 16, 2024

Sharman Altshuler of Moonbox Productions, Geeta Pradhan of the Cambridge Community Foundation and David Altshuler, founder of Arrow Street Arts at the former Oberon theater in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Robert Torre)

A renovated Oberon theater space in Harvard Square will open this year under a new name for theater, music, dance, film, spoken word and readings, said David Altshuler, the entrepreneur and philanthropist claiming the site for his Arrow Street Arts.

A street-front studio is expected to open in the second quarter of 2023, and an attached renovated black box theater will follow late in the year, said the new nonprofit in a press release embargoed until Wednesday.

Construction is underway for a 11,500-square-foot Arrow Street facility, including a 4,500-square-foot black box theater in a renovated Oberon with flexible seating able to hold some 300 audience members; and a new 1,100-square-foot studio that can seat 100-plus people for smaller productions and events.

The costs of the renovation, and ASA’s financial terms in a long-term lease with building owner Harvard University, were not released.

A rendering of Arrow Street Arts when it opens this year. (Image: TruDesign)

Oberon closed in late 2021 with Harvard’s plans to move its theater arts to Allston, including  the American Repertory Theater on Brattle Street. The leasing firm Graffito had aimed to secure a tenant for Oberon by last spring, but there were no updates for months – until December, when a Harvard spokesperson confirmed a tenant had been chosen.

“When vetting proposals for 2 Arrow St., Harvard looked for a partner who understands the importance of honoring the Oberon legacy of contributing to the local Cambridge arts scene with inclusion and vibrancy,” said Sean Caron, vice president for campus services at Harvard, in the release. “In Arrow Street Arts, we’re excited to be able to support an expanded performance venue where the Cambridge community and performing artists across Boston come together with Harvard students, faculty and alumni to be inspired in Harvard Square.”

The venue will provide a home for Moonbox Productions, a theater company founded in Harvard Square in 2011 by Sharman Altshuler – the Altshulers are husband and wife – that had been searching for one for more than a decade. Moonbox has performed in nine venues, recently in a long-empty candy store just blocks away in Harvard Square.

Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association called the deal “a no-brainer” that would be a boost for the retailers and eateries around it, such as the BerryLine frozen yogurt shop and new Faro Café, a coffee shop and bookstore.

“We were approached a year ago, maybe longer, and we loved the idea that it was a local entity,” Jillson said. Moonbox Productions has been a longtime member of the HSBA, and Sharman Altshuler has been a member of the board.

Cambridge Community Foundation involved

Arrow Street Arts is partnering with the Cambridge Community Foundation on an Arrow Street Arts Fund that will subsidize artist access to its venues, according to the release. The fund will pay special attention to boosting productions from historically underserved communities, said Altshuler and Geeta Pradhan, president of the foundation, but the partnership will have a second function: raising funds for a Cultural Capital Fund to support Cambridge artists working throughout the city.

“The city’s economic growth has had a dramatic impact on the creative community and others who struggle to live and work here,” Pradhan said. “We see the Arrow Street Arts Fund and the growth of the Cultural Capital Fund as key to ensuring the arts are able to thrive in Cambridge, healing and bringing the community together and keeping our city vibrant.”

Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts agency, said the loss of Oberon was “deeply felt” by our creative community, making the introduction of Arrow Street Arts all the more exciting – or perhaps relieving.

“We have much to celebrate. This project also underscores Harvard University’s ongoing commitment to the important role of arts and culture” in Harvard Square, Weeks said.

Arts economy at risk

Construction is underway on a black box theater for the Arrow Street Arts facility. (Photo: Robert Torres)

A study released in 2017 found that arts and culture was a $175 million industry in Cambridge, supporting the equivalent of 6,129 full-time jobs annually; even then it wasn’t clear how much of the economic activity had slipped away in the previous few years or how much was at risk as the city changed. The news that Harvard was relocating its theaters followed in 2019, which itself was followed by a Covid pandemic that closed theaters and other public entertainment first and longest.

“During the pandemic, we lost connection and our communities suffered,” Altshuler said, vowing that his venues would bring performers and audiences together to renew that community. “Arrow Street Arts will amplify the work of artists and all who contribute to the fabric of Cambridge and the Greater Boston area.”

When open, Arrow Street Arts will complement a 150-seat community theater space that came online Oct. 8 at the new Foundry building in East Cambridge. Its first performance use was a “Qabaret” by the Queer Theater in December. ASA’s Harvard Square stages will open ahead of a 400-seat theater at 585 Kendall, a structure not expected to be open until 2026.

With help from the Cambridge Community Foundation, Cambridge Arts and other business and arts service organizations, Arrow Street Arts has begun a series of conversations with artists and arts and culture organizations to “further develop the plans for the venue, all in service to the artists and their communities,” said Altshuler, a Boston-born entrepreneur who has offices in Harvard Square.

Philanthropist founder

According to a bio released for use Wednesday, Altshuler graduated from Williams College and The Wharton School and, “when he decided to return to Cambridge in 1997, his first priority was to subscribe to the A.R.T., Huntington Theatre and Boston Symphony Orchestra.” He’s served two decades as a trustee at the Huntington and more than a decade at the BSO and has supported MIT’s Council on the Arts and the New England Aquarium as well as other nonprofit work unrelated to the arts.

Altshuler described a timeline that had Arrow Street Arts opening the studio space for “limited rehearsals and select events” sometime between April and June, followed by the black box theater opening for use late in the year.

“Branding and venue naming will be announced later in 2023. ASA will be onboarding staff over the course of the year,” he said.