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Port in Progress

April 9, 2007

40 years later, art association expands, thrives

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NEWBURYPORT -- The first cultural nonprofit organization to invest in downtown Newburyport, the Art Association paved the way for many others to come to the city | others such as the Firehouse Center for the Arts and the Custom House Museum.

A pioneer of its time, the association is now a strong presence in Newburyport and the surrounding region.

But that wasn't always the case.

Members have spent decades educating others about the arts and trying to find funding for the organization.

With a dozen galleries and art showplaces downtown, Newburyport is often seen as an arts-based community, but the arts were not a key focus of the city's downtown restoration in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the early 1970s, city officials denied requests by the Newburyport Art Association for a real estate tax abatement on its newly-rehabbed Water Street building, and denied renovation funding through the city’s urban renewal program. Members were told if Newburyport became more “art oriented” or if it became wealthier, the status of those requests would change.

Byron Matthews, the city's mayor at the time, said there could have been several reasons why the association was denied funding | money may not have been available, he said, and the association building was outside of the downtown redevelopment area.

While aid wasn't coming directly to the association, Matthews said help was being provided in other ways. The city's industrial director worked with the art community to help artists look for living space and work space in Newburyport.

"It was just a gesture to try and attract people of that nature to come to the city," Matthews said. "I think the arts are very, very important in any community."

Today paints a different picture for Newburyport’s artist community. Granted a real estate tax abatement by the city in 1999, the association has become a notable presence in the city and an established fixture within artist groups throughout the region. It has the support of banks, foundations, and patrons. Coffee shops and stores are displaying artwork more often, and hosting receptions and exhibits, Association Executive Director Dean Wills said.

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