Man: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.
Erin Williams: We created a system that will guide people from ways down into districts and lead you into the destination. It’s color-coded, it’s emblematically coded, but how does it relate to arts and culture? It incorporates public art.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Erin Williams, a cultural development officer for the City of Worcester and executive director of the Worcester Cultural Coalition and welcome to the program, Erin.
Erin Williams: Hi, Anita, thanks for having me.
Anita Walker: You are right smack dab in the middle of work that cities and towns all over Massachusetts are talking to us about and that is how do we activate and enliven our city and our town through the arts? And you’ve been doing this for how many years now?
Erin Williams: Believe it or not, twelve years.
Anita Walker: And you are in a relatively unusual situation here in Massachusetts in that your work is actually attached to the municipality.
Erin Williams: That’s correct and it was thanks to the MCC that my position was actually created back in 1999.
Anita Walker: Tell us that story. It’s a great story.
Erin Williams: Sure. In 1999 there were many organizations in Worcester. Our leading cultural organizations who were all going to our city manager– we’re a city manager government with our own agendas. At the same time our biotech community had organized and created their own common agenda. So, it was suggested that the arts community go and organize amongst themselves and come back with a common agenda that would serve the needs of both the big and the small organizations in the city. And they did just that with the assistance of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. They spent over a year cultivating a strategy and an action agenda, which would be brought to the city. They levied themselves– Mass Cultural Council provided three years of operating support along with the Greater Worcester Community Foundation with the understanding that this position would be housed in the Office of Economic Development making it necessary rather than just a nice attribute of culture in the city.
Anita Walker: And that’s where you landed in this position.
Erin Williams: I landed in that position. Someone else had been in the position for two years. And at this time the city pays my salary and the cultural coalition members, they started with twelve, now grown to seventy-eight strong, provide all of the expenses and programming monies.
Anita Walker: Why do you think it’s beneficial and an advantage for you to be in City Hall?
Erin Williams: Well, this gives arts and cultural a seat at the table. And the purpose of the cultural coalition is not just about individual agendas. It’s about collective impact and cultural equity. It’s about really creating an agenda that’s serving the needs of a broader community than a specific constituency. So, when the city’s thinking about streetscape improvement, bring arts into the mix. How do we put public art into our wayfinding systems? When we begin to think about marketing, how do we market? We have 32,000 college students in the city. We created a program called the Woo Card: Wooing students 32,000 strong off of their campuses on Woo buses out into the community to experience live culture.
Anita Walker: So, you’ve been doing this now for a number of years. What are your proudest achievements over this time?
Erin Williams: Number one, that we’re still going strong. That it is a coalition that has a strength of major institutions who understand that the rising tide rises all the boats. And they can support and cross collaborate and promote with our smaller organizations, such as the Southeast Asian coalition, who has very few resources and a large immigrant population. But when you ask what’s one of my greatest achievements, or I would like to think our achievements, it was our ability to raise five hundred thousand dollars for ongoing arts education with the Worcester public schools. We have something called Culture Leap and this is where every grade level in the Worcester public schools will have a specific relationship with one of our cultural institutions. So, when you’re in second grade you have experiences and curriculum-based work with Tower Hill Botanical Gardens. You do site visits there. Conversely, they engage with the students and the faculty. There’s professional development. And those students have a sense of ownership of our cultural community. So, when students grow up, they can begin to identify arts and culture as a part of their everyday lives. And that’s important to me.
Anita Walker: So, I feel like what you’re saying is whether it’s in the public schools or downtown or in your relationship with the college students or nightlife or weekend park life in Worcester, the work of the cultural organizations, the cultural sector, is really integrated and part and parcel of the policy agenda of the city at large.
Erin Williams: It is. And this has grown over time. We have a city manager and a mayor who are strong advocates for the arts, especially as they engage underserved populations and young people in particular. We have a city council who have supported us over the years. And boards of directors from our various institutions and organizations who see the value of arts and culture. And now the private sector is participating in that as well.
Anita Walker: So, we may have some people listening to this podcast going, “Hmm.. I wonder how we get this in my city or town?” First steps, how would you advise that communities get organized around this idea?
Erin Williams: Town hall meetings are very important, I think. Allowing people to come and express their views on why arts and culture make a difference in their own lives and what kinds of programs and experiences do they want to see within their own neighborhoods and communities. And then to step back and put together a cohort who are thinking about the big and the small needs of arts and culture, and to start small, begin to take on a project as a collaborative unit partnering with your city perhaps with the economic development office. It might be the planning office or the cultural office if one exists or your local cultural council and go after some initiatives that you think will benefit the community at large.
Anita Walker: What are some good first smaller steps where you could build a success?
Erin Williams: Cross promotion. Creating one unified calendar. We have something called Social Web for Central Massachusetts. Every organization, every institution, every media resource uses this calendar as the go-to place to enter all information. So, it’s a one-stop shop for when you want to experience something as a consumer. It’s also a one-stop shop for the media when they want to gather information and identify unique stories and it’s a one-stop shop for the venues as a coalition when we can begin to look to see, “Oh, we’re going to do a gala on x night a festival.” “No, Worcester Art Museum’s already doing something that night. Well, would it make sense to combine efforts? Would these complement one another? Or should we find another date?” That’s a very simple first step.
Anita Walker: And if I had a nickel for every time I heard, “Gee, if we only had <laughs> a central calendar.” How hard was that to put together and is that housed with you?
Erin Williams: That is housed under Social Web. It’s actually a– it was created by a Worcester Polytechnic Institute student who loved our city and was tired of people saying there was nothing to do in Worcester. He created this platform. WPI has housed it and it’s grown into an entity where any community can use that platform now. It’s a free resource if you just want a limited amount of events listed or you can create your own individual calendars as well as it will feed into that larger Social Web calendar.
Anita Walker: I have a feeling, the fact that you just said that, we’re gonna have a lot of new calendars popping up here in Massachusetts. So, calendars, I hear it all the time. The other thing I hear all the time– and I know you have tackled successfully– is wayfinding.
Erin Williams: Yes.
Anita Walker: And I will tell you, Erin, Worcester is not an easy place to find your way around.
Erin Williams: I think we created this in your honor, Anita.
Anita Walker: Tell us about your wayfinding initiatives.
Erin Williams: Certainly. This goes back all the way to 2007. Worcester, like many–
Anita Walker: That’s when I arrived and tried to get my way in and out of Worcester.
Erin Williams: So, Worcester, like many New England cities is not a grid city, it’s a spaghetti-street city. When you ask people, “Have you ever been to Worcester?” They say, “Yes, I went to Worcester and I got lost.” So, collective impact once again. We looked at our streetscape– to be quite frank, extremely ugly. Cluttered when you get off of the major highways. Just many signs scattered here and there. No sense of order to it. You really can’t find your way around even using those signs. We have all the colleges who have agreed to de-sign. All of the leading institutions will de-sign. All the cultural organizations will re-sign. We spent over a year and a half working as a community to think about a system that would make sense. We work with Selbert Perkins Designs, one of the leading wayfinding businesses in the world actually. They’ve done work in Dubai, they’ve done work in L.A., and they are also keen on storytelling and unique identification for a city. So, what do we do? We created a system that will guide people from ways down into districts and lead you into the destination. It’s color-coded, it’s emblematically coded. But how does it relate to arts and culture? It incorporates public art in all of the districts. So, in the system themselves, because we’re kind of a pragmatic New England roll-up-your-sleeves community, they probably wouldn’t be giving us state monies for twenty-five pieces of large public art. But if you incorporate the public art into the wayfinding system itself it beautifies the city and makes it easy for people to get around and they’re much more comfortable about where they are and perhaps staying.
Anita Walker: You are also one of the cities that has tapped into the cultural district program that we have here at the Mass. Cultural Council. So, tell me how that fits into the strategy of Worcester.
Erin Williams: Well, it’s a microcosm of our coalition actually. You were very useful along with your staff, Meri Jenkins and Annie Houston, coming out and spending time with us to think about what is a livable, walkable, creative district? And we brought together a cohort of big and small, non-profit, for-profit, places of worship, businesses who identified as a unique district. And it happens to be where some of our major museums and concert halls are located, a wonderful park, many houses of worship that are used for the arts, and the American Antiquarian Society. We have the Center for Crafts in this area as well. We worked together to create a strategy and an identification and, lo and behold, it was tying right in with our wayfinding system, which made sense. And we just had a meeting yesterday. We are rolling out our initiative to really spread the word of what’s happening in the Salisbury Cultural District and it’s encouraged cross-promotion as well as collaborative events that are starting this fall.
Anita Walker: So, this whole notion of integrating the arts into city strategies, city planning, is this just about economic development and attracting visitors and making Worcester a destination for tourism dollars? Or is there more to it than that?
Erin Williams: Well, a number of years ago we, again, gathered as a community to think about what is a creative city? What are the values that you want to see above and beyond economic development and beautification? It’s a great place to celebrate innovation, to think about social capital and how people who live within their community can feel a sense of ownership and creativity and that it can be expressed, communicated and followed through.
Anita Walker: To wrap up the conversation, if you were gonna tell about one thing, one special thing that’s happened in your tenure that you would like to see every other city and town think about, something they could actually do, they could just be the sparkplug to get activated in their creative city, what would it be?
Erin Williams: Well, because you’re asking that question today– it might be different tomorrow– but we have a Make Art Everywhere campaign. And it’s about public art throughout the city. And it’s a three-tiered process – Bringing in international artists to come and celebrate and put up large murals so people will identify Worcester as a creative city; support local artists so that they have the opportunity to be creating public art not only through murals, but temporary installations; and young people within the community being tied in with these local artists and these international artists so that they can see art as a path for their lives.
Anita Walker: Exciting program. Erin Williams, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Erin Williams: Thank you, Anita.