Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass. Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Lee Heald: One of the things that New Bedford has benefited, I think, with AHA! and that AHA!’s brought to the table is this whole brand that we are a community together. We are a community working for goals, and we share and celebrate each other in these amazing ways.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass. Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Lee Heald, the Director of AHA! New Bedford, and welcome to our program.
Lee Heald: Thank you, Anita, for having me, and AHA! stands for Arts, History and Architecture, for those of us who don’t know us.
Anita Walker: Well, thank you for saying that, because my first comment was going to be, I have always, always, always loved the name, AHA!. I mean, it says so much in three little letters, and it was really sort of an “ah-hah” for the rest of Massachusetts of what the arts and culture has to do with economic development in cities and towns.
Lee Heald: Well, it had an interesting start, actually. So, in 1997 the Standard-Times, which is the newspaper in New Bedford, convened original Community Congress, and it was an idea of city planning at the time. Bill Kennedy, who was the publisher at the Standard-Times, had this big idea, and so as a community we met, and there were six different committees. So there was arts and culture. There was business. There was education. There was health and human services. There was the environment, and then, of course, there were communities of faith, and so all of the communities met once a month. We did all of the things that you did at that time. You had walls of dreams. We voted with dots, all of those things, and out of all of that work, the thing that really actioned was the notion of this once-a-month convening of arts and culture– like a gallery night. We had looked at Providence, actually, at the time. Imitation is a form of flattery, but we actually didn’t have enough galleries to do gallery night. It took us 11 years before we actually had enough galleries to do that, so we applied for one of the first rounds of the cultural economic development, CED, at the time with Beate Becker and we started in. So our first night was July of 1999, and we had about 267 people, I think it was, the number at the time, and now if we don’t see 3,000 or 4,000 people, we think, “Oh, my gosh, must’ve been the weather. Must’ve been something we said,” because people are now flocking downtown. If you’ve read some of your e-mails, it got voted 1 of the top 25 things to do in Massachusetts this summer, and, no hard feelings, but it was ahead of Fenway Park. I want to put that out for everyone.
Anita Walker: That is fair, and you should feel highly flattered, because ever since you started AHA!, everybody wants to do it. In fact, they want to take your name, and we usually discourage that, because you– that was your idea and your name. So, great idea. Let’s bring arts and culture alive once a month in downtown New Bedford. Give us a sort of a snapshot of the before and after. What was New Bedford downtown like then, and what has happened since?
Lee Heald: Well, it’s interesting. We chose Thursday night, and I know there are a lot of replication projects about New Bedford, and I always step up and say we chose Thursday night, because Thursday night was cruising night in downtown New Bedford, and so for people who grew up there in the ‘40s and ‘50s, even a little bit into the ‘60s, Thursday night was the night that all the stores were open downtown. It’s when people got paid, and people talked about you walked one way down the street, because all the cars were driving the other way, and you could get coupons if you went into the stores a couple of times. So Thursday night was familiar to downtown New Bedford, and I think what it did was bring a sense of possibility to New Bedford, and because it was always a platform from all the sectors of society, it was really a way in which people could come together and rebuild their community and reconnect, and so you frequently heard in the early years, “I saw so-and-so,” they hadn’t seen for years, because people actually did come down, and for that night downtown was like Camelot. I mean, you really saw the possibility of what an active and vibrant downtown was. As when we started, it was storefronts, open storefronts, vacant storefronts. The College of Visual and Performing Arts, the Star Store, which Senator Montigny has been so instrumental in getting to be downtown from UMass, was not yet open. The national park was not yet open. The art museum was not yet open. ArtWorks! was just starting, and so it was a way to really think about, what is the fabric of downtown, and how can we kind of move that out? The park was just coming into being. The art museum was opening the next year. It was just at that beginning idea of, well, we could actually get people to move around downtown in this way, and as we played three-dimensional tic-tac-toe with the times of AHA! and the places, we got people to move around downtown, and by the end of the first summer, we saw a real-estate ad that said, “Within 10 minutes of AHA!, this apartment is available,” and we thought, “Well, we’re”..
Anita Walker: You’re a landmark.
Lee Heald: … “a landmark. We’ve made the big time.” It was a discouraged city center. I mean, we’ve talked about the cities that get left behind, and New Bedford has a lot of challenges in terms of employment and educational attainment and how people communicated with what was essentially the downtown commercial area. New Bedford is still the largest fishing port for value of catch landed. I mean, it still has a vibrant economy, but it wasn’t an economy that was really tied to arts and cultural retail or learning or whatever. So now there’s a university downtown. Bristol Community College is downtown. As you know, the Mass. Cultural Council identified New Bedford as one of the cultural cities two years ago, and I always say it’s not because we are the most cultural city in Massachusetts for that year, but we are the community who really has used arts and culture as a way to create a platform for community development, for understanding and for the economy, because everybody who always wants– I always say, “Who wants my job at AHA!?”– always said it’s because it’s the creative economy, and their eyes light up at the creative part, and I always think, “No, it’s really about the economy, because very– from the very first year we had done economic research with the University of Massachusetts, the public-policy center, and the first year I think our return on investment was every dollar that the state put in we returned $7 to the economy, and by the time we were done, we returned $32 to the economy. So, AHA!, which was free, open, inclusive, diverse and goes from K-through-12 art into wonderful professional people throughout the whole city actually returns close to $1 million a year to the city of New Bedford, and I think that’s kind of a marker about how business gets done well.
Anita Walker: So let’s look under the hood a little bit. So you talked about it’s creative economy; don’t forget the economy, stupid. You’re not an arts person.
Lee Heald: I am not an artist. If you knew me well, you would also know that I’m not a dancer, and I’m not– I have no musical ability. I always say my aspiration, my inspiration and my talent really match, and it’s close to zero. But I did start out as a math econ. major at Brown, and so I’m really structurally oriented into– I’m the person who always does the budget first and loves it. Everybody else wants to do the narrative, and I think, no, if you can do the budget, then you can write the narrative, and if I teach that, I always say start with the budget, and then we’ll talk, because if you can’t figure out the budget or the timeline, my next favorite piece, then you’re never going to be able to do the narrative, and so I am– I never get in the way. I never have, “I wish it could be.” I’m really kind of flat-line about, bring it on. Let’s see what it looks like. I’m not judgmental. We host the largest public-arts exhibition with the public schools each year for May AHA!. It’s about 3,000 pieces of schoolchildren’s art, and I think that’s just as fabulous as the fact that Marc Dion, the internationally known artist, yeah, when he opened his show at the ICA, he gave his opening talk on AHA! Night in New Bedford, because it was really important to him to think about the community that he came from and to be a model and an example. But, I mean, all of that is good to me, and we are an opening opportunity for small arts groups, for small– we have some high school players coming down for the new AHA!. We have the symphony orchestra playing. We have this fabulous exhibit in Custom House Square with a world-renowned artist right now, and we have kids doing overhead arts that they’ve practiced all summer in the same thing. It’s really important to recognize people’s contribution, and the same thing about cultural programs. People bring their culture in all different frameworks, and I think it’s important to celebrate and recognize each individual contribution, and I think if I were myself an artist, I would see that very differently.
Anita Walker: So you used the word “platform” when you were first describing sort of what AHA! is. It’s a platform, and you’ve used the words “diverse” and “inclusive.” How do I build a platform like that?
Lee Heald: Well, it’s interesting, because this is an iterative literature. It’s an iterative field, the place-making field, and I had always wondered, because I’m a Ph.D., and I’m high content queen, and I always think, “Okay, what’s the background of that?” and I was in a lecture at the university. They do talks, and it is my honor to be invited, and so this man started talking about, “I’m going to talk about ABCD,” and I thought, okay, and we’ve all sat through those lectures and thought, “Okay, great. This is great,” and he said, “It’s about asset-based community development, and it all starts”– and he actually literally drew this on overhead with grease pencils, and he said, “Yesterday I read in The New York Times that PowerPoints are out, and so I’ve gone back to the early technology.” Half of the people in the room, of course, had never seen this technology. I was one of the people who had. So his first slide was he drew a stick figure, and he said, “All of this platform for community development starts with one person, and it is a person who comes to the table with gifts to give,” and then he– I’ll go fast through it, but he drew circles around it, and he said, “Okay, what’re the circles?” and he said, “Well, the circles are really those community groups”– like I always think of the Cape Verdean Recognition Society or the Portuguese Feast folks. In New Bedford, they are groups that get together around an idea or a cultural program or a plan, or they’re small, and he said they have gifts to give, but they give them in a group, a circle, and then he drew triangles, and we all thought, okay, and the triangles are the hierarchical people, so it’s the state government. It’s the city government. It’s the police department, the fire department, the school department, the state, for instance. They’re all hierarchical, and he said, okay, so there you’ve got all these little things, and then he drew a square, and he said the square is really your geography, because all of this happens within a place, and that is your platform, and if you do it right and you go all the way through from one person to groups of people to the hierarchy to the place, he said you develop an idea that has communication, trust, shared goals and a shared vision, and so you really develop your narrative that is yours, and I had this epiphany, this eureka, this ah-hah moment, and I thought, well, that really is the explanation of AHA!, and it’s the way we’ve built a platform. So I think the mistakes sometimes people make with the creative economy is they look at the top layer, which is, “I have a retail establishment with an art exhibit, and I’ve asked someone to sing, and we sent out the invitations,” and I think, well, that’s kind of interesting. That’s kind of the frosting on the cake, but kind of what’s the layer of your cake? Who in the community knows about that? How open have you been? We have the Polish Businesswomen’s Association who comes to the church, the Pilgrim United Church, each year and does a wonderful exhibition of their work and their culture. It’s like, have you gone through all layers of your culture? Have you really reached out in the community to make sure that everyone knows and can call you and come, can just come and be? So I think that that’s what I think of as a platform that goes from individuals through groups, through the hierarchy, because you work with the city. You work with the state. You work with the federal government. We get grants from NEA and NEH, and you represent a place. You make a stake, because that is– it is essentially, if you read all of the information about creative placemaking, that is the narrative that creative placemaking describes to us. But if you look under the hood, that’s the way you do it, and the asset-based community development is a center out at Northwestern University, and, interestingly enough, at the end of the talk, the nice gentleman said, “By the way, it is where Barack Obama went for some of his graduate work,” so no surprise to those of us who really love that spirit of community that came with that presidency.
Anita Walker: So, this was a really clear and cogent explanation.
Lee Heald: There are workbooks that go with it. You can dial up [ph?] workbooks that go with it.
Anita Walker: So you did this, and now we have the words and the– we draw in the air here. You can’t see the grease pencil or the PowerPoint, but here in our little pod-pod where we’re recording this, we are drawing in the air. How do you sustain it? It’s one thing to reach out, to bring people, to invite people in, to sort of communicate that you’re welcome in, and this is really all part and parcel of the fabric of our community. But how does that keep going?
Lee Heald: Well, I mean, that’s an interesting question, is it, because AHA! has reached 20, so we were the longest continuously– and I think at that point only continuously funded program through the Adams Grant. So we lived through the creative economy phase. We lived through the placemaking phase, and we are now asking ourselves that question, and it really comes really in three parts, I think. One is that we’ve kind of gone through a generation. Twenty years is a generation of young people growing up. A couple of years ago we came to the realization that we had graduated the first class of kids from New Bedford High School who thought– think New Bedford’s really cool, because it is the place to be, and they’ve grown up with AHA!, and that framework and that branding– and one of the things that New Bedford has benefited, I think, with AHA! and that AHA!’s brought to the table is this whole brand that we are a community together. We are a community working for goals, and we share and celebrate each other in these amazing ways, and that position is really enlightening and engaging, and it lifts you up. It just lifts you up. So I think that we’re now through that first generation, and we need to think about the next generation.
Anita Walker: But how did you last for 20 years, and how much of it is you?
Lee Heald: Well, I’ve been honored and blessed with the people who are partners. I mean, we started out with 14 partners. Then we moved up to kind of 30 partners. Now we have about 65 partners, so it’s really partners in partnership and also the leadership of the Mass. Cultural Council. So, I mean, those of us who’re in the field kind of work in between, but I will say that my professional training is really as a developmental psychologist, so I’m interested in how people think and learn. I was at Piagiadine [ph?] looking at adult learning, and so I’ve always been interested to think about how people go through those milestones themselves, and AHA! has done planning around milestones, and Meri Jenkins, who’s the former program officer who’s really– was the soul and brains behind the Adams program for many years, we started to think, well, we did planning at two years. That was kind of our baby steps, and then we did our adolescent planning, so we had a whole thing at 7 years, and then we did kind of our adult planning at 13 years, and now we’re actually going to another planning process. I went to Michael Ibrahim’s workshop on kind of sustainability..
Anita Walker: Transitions.
Lee Heald: … and transitions and kind of moving through that, and I loved it, and I’ve brought it back to our group, and we’re kind of thinking about that. But it’s really the piece of we’ve lived through a generation. That’s time. New Bedford also has a lot of opportunities because of the work we’ve done and the platform. We have more of the Mark Harmon [ph?] sustainability grants than anybody outside of Boston. So the Symphony House won, the New Bedford Art Museum, the Zeiterion Theatre. Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts has one of the Barr Foundation Creative Commonwealth grants, along with five other– there’re five total, so one plus four, in the Commonwealth, and that’s a huge opportunity, and that’s got a lot of energy behind it. The city has founded an arts fund through some work with the legislature and the home-rule [ph?] petition and now has an arts and culture plan. So, I mean, New Bedford has so many opportunities that you not only look at the generation of people you’ve mentored, but you look at the generation coming up and think about, well, okay, in the next 20 years, what’re those opportunities? So, Instagram didn’t exist when we started. Hello. We did most of our marketing through print and newspaper media and posters, and now, of course, we’re in social media, and we’re quite active. I mean, just the way you reach people, who you’re reaching, the way people who come to you visit you and understand what’s going on, who co-brands and co-markets with you– I mean, it’s not only the programming but the audience, the funding, the opportunities, where you fit in the world, and so we’re kind of looking at those things, because I think it’s not only the sustainability of what you are but the flexibility– Meri always said we were like an amoeba, and we would kind of go and think, okay, well, this is our next kind of way of thinking and being, and we are trying to balance those opportunities with being mindful, because we’ve always represented the platform, the opportunity to participate and be immediately in and be an information center. We’ve always been a starting level for people. We’ve been a validation. We’ve been a way to be recognized and be out there. I love it when kids come and say, “I always wanted to perform,” and you say, “Well, here you go. Here’s your stage,” and so we’re trying to think about– okay, those are really important things, and we can’t get so systematized that we lose the edges. I mean, the money’s in the middle, and the creativity’s around the edge, and we’ve always been that little wave edge and been supported in the middle, and so we kind of want to think about– because you always need the– not the– I don’t want to say fringe, but you need that kind of percolation of the fun around the edge, because you can’t lose the fun.
Anita Walker: That’s the dynamism, and that really is..
Lee Heald: Yeah, it is the dynamism.
Anita Walker: … the source of life.
Lee Heald: It is, really.
Anita Walker: So, Lee Heald, you said you’re a mathematician, but as I close, I’d like to say Lee Heald, director of the AHA! New Bedford, is one of our creative minds out loud.
Lee Heald: Thank you, Anita. I’m honored to be here and share anything we have with the community.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit CreativeMindsOutLoud.org.