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Morgan Drewniany: Art is a tool to connect communities, to increase walk-ability, to increase public safety and bringing Futurecity into Springfield, we were able to kind of say “Art is economic development and it is public safety and it is something that’s going to transform our cities.”
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Morgan Drewniany, Executive Director of the Springfield Central Cultural District. Thanks for joining us today.
Morgan Drewniany: Thank you so much for having me and thanks for visiting Springfield.
Anita Walker: One of the things I am so excited about is the way that Springfield is really harnessing the creativity and arts and culture as part of its strategy for revitalization. Before we get into exactly how that’s happening, tell me how you got into the picture.
Morgan Drewniany: Oh! So, that’s actually an interesting question! Hilariously enough, my major is in Environmental Soil Chemistry and Environmental Health so I never really saw myself going into Arts Administration, but when I left Hampshire College, I kind of took note of what I loved about my work and it was working with communities to help themselves kind of improve communities, improve connections between the people and that’s how I really ended up wanting to get into Arts Administration because I’ve seen how catalytic it can be. I grew up in Westfield, so Springfield was a natural fit; I’ve always loved the city and it’s in a place right now that’s pretty exciting. There’s a lot of things happening.
Anita Walker: So, some people might think of Springfield and the challenges immediately come to mind. You see opportunities.
Morgan Drewniany: Right.
Anita Walker: What are they?
Morgan Drewniany: Yeah! So, I mean, again, back to just the community, the people are incredible. I would say there’s nowhere else in the Pioneer Valley or Western Massachusetts that really has the diversity that Springfield has. We have a huge Puerto Rican population, African American population. We have a Caribbean festival which is phenomenal, every year it’s so fun. The Greek festival, Glendi. Just celebrations of different heritages and backgrounds and I think it’s so valuable that we have all of those different points of view in our city and that, I think, is our biggest asset.
Anita Walker: So, you are in charge of the relatively new Cultural Districts, Springfield Central Cultural Districts. What are you trying to accomplish with that?
Morgan Drewniany: When I talk to people, I say plain and simple– despite our very wordy mission and vision statements– that we’re just working to make Springfield more friendly to arts and culture and that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It kind of encompasses advocacy and talking about why arts are important, marketing, getting people to understand Springfield is a cultural capital and then programming, of course, to kind of create small events or public art to tie all of these threads together.
Anita Walker: So, what are some of your benchmark achievements since you formed the Cultural District?
Morgan Drewniany: So, for the first year we did a lot of internal. So, governing structuring, board structuring; stuff that’s not exactly fun and I’ve been lucky enough to come in at a point where we are already kind of all together and I get to do the fun stuff now. In the fall of 2015, I did a community movie screening, and as part of that we did a lot of place-making. So, we did a big, chalk wall mural kind of based on the Before I Die model and part of that we also did two utility box murals in a small pocket park in the center of downtown and people loved those so much that in the spring of 2016, I was able to expand the program about tenfold. We now have 23 utility box murals throughout the downtown; all done by local artists mostly from Springfield and all are sponsored by local businesses that wanted to see more art in their community. We’ve gotten nothing but incredible feedback from the community. I scheduled it so the artists were all working during daytime hours on weekdays so passerby– whether they be employees or residents– were able to engage with the artist and I got a lot of feedback from the artists too, saying that everyone was super thankful that this project was happening.
Anita Walker: You know, you just mentioned something that I think is so important. It’s not just the final artistic product. People are so interested in the process and to get to know the artists.
Morgan Drewniany: Yeah, people love watching artists work. It’s kind of like magic to me. I’m not an artist myself, so kind of seeing them take something as ugly and utilitarian as a gray utility box and turn it into something completely different, whether it now looks like a tapestry or a quilt or a cartoon, I think there’s definitely some magic in that that people loved to see.
Anita Walker: And go back to– you mentioned the Chalk Project. What did you mean by Before I Die concept?
Morgan Drewniany: So, there is an artist, her name is escaping me, but after Hurricane Katrina she went and did a big wall mural on a reclaimed building that said “Before I die, I want to…” and there’s lines under that for people to kind of write in their dreams and it’s not as morbid as it seems at first, it’s more of a just like, in the wake of this natural disaster or in this change, these are the things that I now am kind of saying “Life is too short to miss out on it. So, before I die, I want to go climb Mount Everest or I want to go sky diving or go in a hot air balloon.” Things like that. Our model is When I Grow Up. We put a little Springfield twist on it of thinking about how everyone kind of has a child still inside of them and dream about what they possibly could do in the future.
Anita Walker: Can you think of some of the things people wrote?
Morgan Drewniany: Oh. So, I think my favorite probably was “Drive a truck.” Which <laughs> on the surface, not something that’s so glamorous, but I talked to the person that did that afterwards– they’re a resident of Mattoon Street– and he said, “You know, it’s not like a pickup truck, but like a tractor trailer because those guys– even though they work long hours– they get to see the countryside and they get that kind of solitary time in a cab of a truck by themselves.” So, I think behind every line, there’s a story.
Anita Walker: That’s a great project. So, you’re not done because you are all in– <laughs>
Morgan Drewniany: <laughs>
Anita Walker: –on harnessing arts and culture for the future of Springfield. And speaking of future, you are one of the pilot communities for a brand new initiative out of the Massachusetts Cultural Council called Future City. Springfield jumped in– your mayor, by the way, who totally gets it and that’s so important in our communities when the leadership is part and parcel and a partner of the work– stepped right up and raised his hand and said, “We want Springfield to be one of the first Future Cities.” So, talk to me a little about that and what it’s meant to Springfield so far.
Morgan Drewniany: Yeah, yeah. I think this is so exciting that we’re one of the first three because Western Mass has been kind of the red-headed stepchild for so long, if you may. So, we’re excited to have it but for a long time, our partnership on the Cultural District is a membership based organization, we’ve all been kind of coming together and advocating for not art for art’s sake, but art as a tool to connect communities, to increase walk-ability, to increase public safety and bringing Futurecity into Springfield, we were able to kind of say “Look, this model exists! It’s not just us kind of talking to ourselves, but art is economic development, and it is public safety and it is the thing that’s going to transform our cities.” So, I was thrilled to participate in a workshop by Mark Davy, with all the stakeholders in the city and I think we’re all even more excited to see what he comes back with as well.
Anita Walker: I had a chance, as you know, to sit in on that and I have to say, the diversity and the representation in that room at that workshop with Mark Davy on Future City, we should tell our listeners that Futurecity really envisions art and cultural assets as real marketplace strivers. Not as charities, not as deserving of the crumbs in the leftover spaces, but true partners with developers in city-making and Springfield is really at the cutting edge of that next step forward.
Morgan Drewniany: Absolutely! We have huge developments coming up with Union Station rail all the way to New Haven and then hopefully out to Boston as well and the new, huge MGM casino that’s coming in. We really are hoping with those two anchor projects to the Cultural District, there’s a lot of market-rate housing going in downtown as well and interesting new developments, whether they be businesses or whole buildings. I’m hoping that we can reach those developers at this moment that we’re all kind of– the tide is turning– to show them the power of the arts and get them to integrate the arts into those projects.
Anita Walker: Morgan Drewniany, Executive Director of Springfield Central Cultural District, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Morgan Drewniany: Thank you so much for having me, Anita.
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