, Newburyport, MA

April 9, 2007

40 years later, art association expands, thrives

Katie Farrell

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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.

In the late 1990s, the association underwent a $140,000 renovation and expansion to the Water Street building, adding more gallery space. Membership has leapt over the last 10 years, increasing from about 100 members in 1997 to more than 800 today. A small staff has been hired to oversee daily operations and the association hosts more than 40 shows a year.

Over the past year, the association has committed to outreach programs meant to educate about art and to create awareness about the association and its purpose in Newburyport, Wills said.

The association has received contributions from foundations to help offer services and outreach to area schools and local organizations. It started offering more programs in the schools over the last year, Wills said. Services include mentoring, career orientation and exposure to the arts community through programs like the "working art tour" where artists opened their studios for high school kids to tour and ask questions. Two high school students intern at the association each semester, Wills said.

Nine years ago when the school program first formed, the art association helped by offering supplies or programs like the "budding artists" show, Wills said.

Today, even that "budding artists" show has expanded. A juried show, it is open to students age 11 through 18. Artwork by all students is accepted and over $600 in cash prizes is awarded. Funding for the prizes is donated by art supporters and art patrons, Wills said. The show started last weekend and will continue through April 22.


By offering more programs and events, the Art Association is striving to overcome its main hurdle – misunderstanding, Wills said. Members are trying to show the community “who we are and what we do,” Wills said. People still have a misconception that the association is a members-only club and are unclear as to what its mission is, he said.

“That's part of why we are working in collaboration with other groups, and reaching out to prospective non-artists like the Mothers’ Club," Wills said. The association is hosting a social with the Mothers’ Club on May 5 to introduce itself to that group and educate its members about after-school and summer programs for children, and workshops for parents and children to take together, Wills said.

Art Association member Skip Motes credits the association’s increased presence in the community to “two core values.” The association is open to all and is not strictly members only, Motes said. Nor is it restricted to painters -- artists who use all mediums from painting to photography belong to the association.

Finance records from 2005, the latest year publicly available, show an income of $183,000 and some $229,000 in assets.

A nonprofit organization can't sustain itself financially without being part of community, Motes said. The association had to offer the community more than just gallery space for artists to use. It had to become a catalyst to draw supporters in by offering classes for all ages, workshops and programs, Motes said.

"If you don't do that, you don't in the end gain the support of the larger community," Motes said.

The Art Association has partnered with Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, the Eagle Festival and Historic New England. Members will also take part in the annual Literary Festival as the association has collaborated with organizers for the second year. Artists will perform “The Painted Word" as a spring show, and create artwork based on a line from published literature. Wills said it’s likely about 200 pieces could be entered in that show this year.

As the executive director of the Art Association, Wills joins other leaders and directors from cultural groups throughout Newburyport each month for a “round table discussion” to brainstorm ideas for partnerships, joint initiatives and ways to share space and resources to help promote the various organizations and their events. Wills called the collaboration “vital” for a strong arts community.

But like many places in Newburyport, the past is hard to shake. Even though the old pool hall closed almost 40 years ago and the art association took its place, Motes recalled an encounter with an old Newburyporter who walked by one day while Motes was working on the art association's sign.

"He said to me, 'It'll always be the pool hall to me,'" Motes said with a chuckle.

The Art Association offers a variety of classes throughout the year for all age groups. For more information, visit or call 978-465-8769.

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