What is the Main Streets Art Project?
By Vincent Tevnan
During the latter half of 2011, the city of Fitchburg was given a grant by the National Endowment of the Arts as part of the “Our Town Project”, to create and showcase public pieces of art that, according to the NEA website, “…would help to reflect the changing face of the city and the challenges faced by many of the city’s low-income residents.” The grant was disbursed in 2012, with three projects appearing in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively. Along with Fitchburg State University and other local organizations, the main objective was the revitalization of Main Street, Fitchburg. This grant helped create the Main Streets Art Project.
However, during the 2016 year, this community effort of revitalizing and creating a public art scene along the main strip of Fitchburg fell silent once more. While there have been efforts by the Fitchburg Art Museum to create more public pieces of art, the question of whether or not two permanent pieces of art are enough to revitalize the community remains to be answered. According to the previously mentioned outline of the Our Town grant for Fitchburg on the NEA website, “City leaders felt the need to revitalize the downtown core, especially the economically depressed Main Street. With vacant storefronts and desolate sidewalks, leaders and residents felt a ‘negative pride’ about the area…There was a need to increase the pride among these groups of residents and cultivate a stronger sense of belonging to the greater Fitchburg community.”
In 2013, 2014, and 2015, there were three projects funded by this grant. A sculpture entitled The Immigrant created by Nora Valdez, That Was Fun – Let’s Do More a mural by artist Caleb Neelon with the help of community members through the Arc of Opportunity, and a piece by the name of The Alphabet by Anna Schuleit Haber, a project revolving around the “..daily newspaper, a collaborative alphabet, an embedded visiting artist, a special group of reporters, and 26 typographers from around the world.”
Why, then, was there no grant during the 2016 or 2017 financial year? With the scope of the project’s goals, it would make sense to apply for another grant, especially if the trend of transforming vacant buildings (of which there are many in Fitchburg) had only just begun. Coincidentally, as well, the only mural to come out of this grant (That Was Fun – Let’s Do More) is an unheeded call to action to complete murals such as that.
According to the FAQ section of the NEA’s Our Town grant, even if you received a grant during the previous financial year, “…you may apply to the Our Town category for FY 2017 for a distinctly different project, or a distinctly different phase of the project, from that which was funded.” Was there another phase to the project that could have been completed/funded?
Does a change in leadership lend itself to not having an Our Town grant during the financial year of 2016, or can it be attributed to a coincidence?
Since the completion of these projects, both the city of Fitchburg and Fitchburg State University have seen a change in leadership. Lisa Wong, Fitchburg’s Mayor during the MSAP decided not to run for re-election, leaving the door open for Stephen DiNatale to assume the position of mayor. Around the time Lisa Wong announced she would not seek re-election, Robert Antonucci, President of Fitchburg State stated that he would be retiring, and his seat is now the possession of Richard Lapidus, who recently bought the old theater on Main Street in an effort to revitalize the area with Dinatale seeing the same potential as President Lapidus. With a clear goal of trying to revitalize the Main Street area, it begs the question as to why the Our Town grant was absent during the past two years.
Coincidentally, the only mural to come out of this grant (That Was Fun – Let’s Do More) is seemingly an unheeded call to action to create murals on abandoned Fitchburg buildings.
In the second part of this series on the Main Street Arts Project, several interviews will be conducted, which will attempt to answer these questions with greater clarity.