Fitchburg, MA: Main Streets Arts Project
How can a public artwork enhance the community’s experience of the downtown while reflecting the nature of a city in transition?
To revitalize and activate its downtown, the City of Fitchburg−in partnership with the local art museum and university−initiated a public art project to install several pieces along the Main Street corridor that would help to reflect the changing face of the city and the challenges faced by many of the city’s low-income residents.
The City of Fitchburg is a small municipality located along the Nashua River in northern Worcester County, with a land area of 28.1 square miles. Once a historic manufacturing community in the earliest days of the American Industrial revolution, the city became known in the 19th century for its paper industry, which employed a large proportion of European immigrants in the area. With the paper industry’s decline, the city has seen an increase in medical equipment manufacturers, turbine designers, machine tool makers, and print technologies. Over the past 40 years, Fitchburg has been a place in transition and is continually trying to redefine its identity and strengthen its economy.
With around 40,000 residents, Fitchburg has a large population of new Americans, and its racial diversity is reflected in the student population of Fitchburg Public Schools (FPS), including 41% White, 42% Hispanic, 7% Black, 6% Asian, and 4% multi-race, non-Hispanic. But even with its changing economic conditions, the population size in Fitchburg has remained unchanged since 1920. Today the area continues to attract a large immigrant population and so in the 1990s the city developed a broad network of social services. Roughly 30% of the Fitchburg population is located within a five-minute drive of downtown and 35% of all households within this radius make less than $35,000 annually.
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, explained Eugene Finney, Director of Marketing and Community Relations at the Fitchburg Art Museum. City leaders were also looking for opportunities to reach out to socio-economically challenged communities who commonly travel downtown to access social services and work. 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.
The City initiated the Main Street Arts Project with the goal of activating the downtown corridor by placing a series of 4 temporary public art installations at key intersections. This project is in alignment with the work city leaders have done with Fitchburg State University and the Fitchburg Art Museum on several creative economy initiatives to increase revitalization and development. For example, the City of Fitchburg, the University and the Art Museum, along with the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation and the Fitchburg Historical Society are working together to establish a downtown cultural district.
As project lead, the City partnered with Fitchburg State University and the Fitchburg Art Museum to develop and implement the project. The two local institutions serve as anchors within the community, each having a strong history of supportive partnership projects. The Museum provided all creative and logistical support that the artists and their projects required. The University provided logistical and financial support for the public event celebrating the unveiling of the work of art by artist Nora Valdez, while the city provided logistical support from the Department of Public Works. In addition to the work done by the primary project partners, the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission did an initial study to identify potential locations for the 4 pieces. Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster and the Cleghorn Neighborhood Association assisted with artist led workshops for youth.
The artist selection method was a curatorial process in which regional artists with significant public art
experience were selected by Museum staff. The three artists selected were Nora Valdez, Caleb Neelon, and Anna Schuleit Haber. Not originally envisioned as a multi-year project, the project time frame was extended because of the untimely passing of one of the original artists, and the time it took to replace him. Nora Valdez's sculpture, The Immigrant, was the first of the three completed pieces. It was originally planned as a temporary piece. However, Ms. Valdez was able to create a permanent public artwork within her budget. The Immigrant was given to the city of Fitchburg as a permanent memorial to the successive waves of immigration that have formed the city over the last 150 years. Over the course of her project, Valdez also led several workshops with the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster and local schools to create mixed media artworks from boxes and suitcases as a representation of each individual's immigrant experiences. The second completed piece was the mural That Was Fun – Let’s Do More by Caleb Neelon. He completed the piece with the help of community members who attended a workshop through the Arc of Opportunity. A community docents program was also created with volunteers engaging Downtown visitors and the transient population about the artwork. (Anna Schuleit Haber's public art project is coming soon.)
With the completion of the first artwork, project leaders have witnessed an increased sense of walkability and pride in the area. The project has become a catalyst for other conversations around creative economy as well, and the partners continue to embark on new creative initiatives together. After witnessing the response of the surrounding communities, it was obvious to all that creative initiatives and public art works are beneficial to all members of the community regardless of their socio- economic status. By bringing together different cultural partners and institutions for this project, members of these organizations were able to build strong working relationships and quickly realized that by working together there was much more that we could accomplish for our community. Recognizing the experience of many local residents, the sculpture is an artwork that embraces the entire history of immigration within the city. One of the most successful aspects of the project was the use of on-sight docents to explain the program and interpret the artwork for the diversity of stakeholders in the neighborhood. This educational outreach effort created a community around the artwork that understands, supports, and will ultimately protect the sculpture. The key aspect to community outreach were our community docents that were on the streets engaging with local residents. The opportunity to talk face to face with members of the community and explain to them the scope of the project was an invaluable tool. In a city with broken windows and vandalism, the sculpture has remained unharmed, exemplifying a sense of ownership by the local residents, Downtown visitors, and the homeless community. The mural by Caleb Neelon has had a major visual impact on the downtown, transforming a previously blank wall and adding new vibrancy, color, and expression to downtown Fitchburg.
OUR ABILITY TO ENGAGE CHALLENGED POPULATIONS AND HELP THEM BECOME STAKEHOLDERS SEEMED TO LEAVE A LASTING SENSE THAT CHANGE IS POSSIBLE. THROUGH CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT WE WERE ABLE TO BREAK DOWN BARRIERS-- BOTH DEMOGRAPHICALLY AND ECONOMICALLY. - Eugene Finney, Director of Marketing and Community Relations at the Fitchburg Art Museum, on Lessons Learned
Argentinean-born Nora Valdez, a well-known Boston artist and educator whose stone sculpture are exhibited internationally, was one of the four artists selected for the project. Her vision for the sculpture celebrated Fitchburg’s immigrant community. She set out to “...symbolically embrace all immigrant communities rather than focusing on a single immigrant community.” The final work of art is a permanently installed sculpture on Main Street in Fitchburg.
- City of Fitchburg
- Fitchburg Art Museum
- Fitchburg State University
- Montachusett Regional Planning Board
- Montachusett Area Rapid Transit (MART)
- Boys and Girls Club of Leominster and Fitchburg (Valdez Project)
- The Arc of Opportunity (Neelon project)