Thursday, July 18, 2024

The second Somerville Cultural Capacity Vision Forum, held Nov. 13 at Warehouse XI in Union Square. (Photo: Claire Ogden)

There was cautious optimism for the future of the arts in Somerville at the second Cultural Capacity Vision Forum, held Nov. 13, but some plan recommendations are lofty, referring to financing and government structures that would have to be built.

Action items on the Somerville Cultural Capacity Plan hope to “establish a community development finance institution to provide capital and low-interest loans to organizations seeking to make capital investments in space” and “Explore the creation of a new municipal arts trust.” Somerville would be leading the way, as arts officials said these ideas don’t have much precedent in the United States. 

The plan grapples with how to keep Somerville’ creative economy – Massachusetts’ third-largest share of architects and designers and the fourth-largest concentration of visual artists, musicians and other performing artists, officials say – amid a building boom causing real estate prices to surge.

One attendee, who worked as a music mixer in Davis Square for more than 18 years, lamented that Somerville artists are victims of their own success. His peers’ efforts put Somerville on the map yet priced him and others out of the area.

“We can’t make this place what it was,” arts council staff reminded the group. Instead, the focus is “how to preserve what’s here and encourage more [of it].”  

This second citywide forum reported on recommendations from 30 “community conversations,” group discussions led by volunteers called cultural ambassadors starting in March. 

Each focused on various identities or interest groups in the arts, such as with Murshid Buwembo’s “People with Disabilities” group, or the “Arts Nonprofits” and “Gallerists” groups led by ceramicist Lynn Gervens, executive director of the Mudflat Pottery School. A conversation for musicians was led by Ajda Snyder, who in January lost her rehearsal space in Allston-Brighton after 18 years.

Finding from the feedback sessions were bookended by opening remarks from the council’s executive director, Gregory Jenkins, and newly reelected mayor Katjana Ballantyne, and a staff wrap-up that included a pitch to attendees: The ideas are wonderful, but staff will need help in making them a reality. SAC staff requested that community members continue submitting their feedback and thoughts via a Google Form survey before the city releases a draft plan.

The council plans to share a full draft of the Cultural Capacity Plan publicly in early December that will be open to community feedback. The goal is to have the plan published by the end of the year, with implementation starting in 2024. 

“We’ve done a lot of work around arts and zoning in the past and used various survey techniques,” Jenkins said later over email, noting preliminary cultural planning work in 2021. “This is the first time [we] have conducted a wide swath … examining the larger community.” 

The council plans to announce cultural capacity working groups in the new year that will be responsible for implementing parts of the plan. “We envision several of our cultural ambassadors will be working on this,” but volunteer support may also be needed, Jenkins said.

The event recording is available on the SAC’s YouTube channel. 

Ambassadors had positive things to say about the community conversations, though details were at times vague. “I was not in control … in a really beautiful way,” said one woman. Buwembo said his conversations with Somerville artists and residents connected him with a woman with disabilities who with Buwembo’s help was finally able to secure a studio space at the Somerville Armory. 

This post was updated Nov. 28, 2023, to correct where an artist was found studio space.