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Nick Capasso: You know, we went through a strategic planning process and we changed the mission in the museum. And the mission now includes community service. It’s called out. It’s hard wired into the DNA of the organization. And without that, you really can’t make any progress.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Nick Capasso. He is the director of the Fitchburg Art Museum and welcome to our program.
Nick Capasso: Thank you very much, Anita.
Anita Walker: This is a jewel. And first of all, I want our listeners to this podcast to know that if you haven’t found your way to the Fitchburg Art Museum, I think you’re going to be in for a big surprise. You are in a community that a lot of people probably don’t necessarily go to seeking out cultural treasures. Yet you have taken this museum, even in the last few years, since I’ve been having a chance to visit you, and it is just exploding beyond its own walls into the community. Talk a little bit about what you’re doing and how this has really become renaissance for this museum.
Nick Capasso: Well, I will start off by sharing the most important conversation I’ve had around the Fitchburg Art Museum. So, this happened even before I began. This is at one of my job interviews. And you get to the point in the interview process where they let me ask them a question. And there was a committee of eight trustees and I asked them the most important question, why are you a trustee? Why do you do this? And they went around the table, and they all answered the question individually. And what they all said to a person was, “I want to give back to the community. ” And that was it, I got my marching orders. They wanted the museum, which had been a bit of a hushed temple of the fine arts, to be a force in the revitalization of the city that they grew up in or lived in or nearby and cared so deeply about.
Anita Walker: And this is a community that is a scrappy community, that is really trying to pull itself back up by its bootstraps.
Nick Capasso: We are one of the gateway cities, which is the euphemism in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for dying New England mill towns. We’ve got lots of them. I think there are 22 or 23 of them. Fitchburg is one of the small ones. But the city of Fitchburg had its glory days between the Civil War and the 1970s-1980s. It was a very well off manufacturing town. People remember growing up there as being a kind of Norman Rockwellesque kind of place. And then when the global economy changed and all the manufacturing left, everything kind of collapsed. And since then, the city has been working to try to imagine how to go forward. And I think we’re at a tipping point where people are getting over being shocked and trying to make things the way they used to be, which is not going to happen, and the energy is now going towards trying to imagine what the city can be for the century were actually in.
Anita Walker: The other thing, we have had a number of different relationships with Fitchburg, whether through our Adams grant program or investing in the cultural organizations. And one of the things that I find exciting is when you start to focus on creativity and innovation and empower the community members to be start of the solution. Suddenly, you discover hope and confidence and optimism.
Nick Capasso: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: And that is a pre-requisite to moving a community forward.
Nick Capasso: That’s right. I mean the very first thing that had to be done was to get people out of the habit of being negative. Because no gets your nowhere. You have to start saying yes.
Anita Walker: So, talk specifically about some of your strategies, some of the activities you’ve been doing to really embrace the community and take as you sort of describe it as sort of the ivory tower positioning of the art museum to true community engagement.
Nick Capasso: Right. So, the very most important thing, and I can’t stress this enough, is that we went through a strategic planning process and we changed the mission in the museum. And the mission now includes community service. It’s called out. It’s hard wired into the DNA of the organization. And without that, you really can’t make any progress. What we’re doing – I mean we have programs and we have initiatives, but it’s not about the specific programs and initiatives, it’s about the attitude.
Anita Walker: And culture.
Nick Capasso: And it has — exactly. And it has to permeate the entire institution from the trustees to the directors through the staff to the volunteers and we’ve done that. And I think that’s what I’m most proud about. Because now we can do the real work. And now, everything that we do proceeds from this attitude. And it’s wide ranging. So, we have become — I’ll give you some examples. We have become one of the few art museums in the country to commit to being bilingual, because 25 percent of the people in Fitchburg are Latinos and 55 percent of the kids in the public schools speak Spanish at home. And it was easy to do.
Anita Walker: So, what does that mean? Does that mean your staff is bilingual? Does that mean the text around the artwork is bilingual?
Nick Capasso: All the text is bilingual. The person you meet when you come in the door speaks Spanish. We are increasingly hiring staff who are fluent in Spanish, so we have three full-time staff who speak Spanish.
Anita Walker: Does that mean the content of your exhibitions is maybe done by Spanish artists?
Nick Capasso: We have done programming specifically addressed to Latino artists. Not all of our programming, but some of it. We’re trying to be mindful of the community that we’re serving and do things of interest to them. Another initiative that were working on, which is very different, is right across the street from the museum are three boarded up municipal buildings, historic buildings and we’re working in collaboration with a local community development corporation to transform these empty buildings in to a campus of 55 units of affordable live-work space for artists and that is well on its way. And that project, it’s not only important for the art museum. And we can’t have a boarded up building across from the art museum. I mean that’s not right. So, it would certainly — its certainly going to help us at the art museum. But something like that can be transformative for the city. And we are fortunate in Fitchburg to have a relatively new mayor, Steve Dinatale, who is —
Anita Walker: A former legislator.
Nick Capasso: That’s right, which is great. And he is laser focused on the economic redevelopment of the city and creative economy is something that is very high on his list. So, by bringing 75 to 100 creative, educated, employed entrepreneurial people to live, work, shop and dine in downtown Fitchburg, can create not only a tipping point of person power, but it also plants a giant flag in the city that says “Creative economy welcome here.” And that can have enormous results. I’m not saying the creative economy is the solution for Fitchburg, but it has to be part of the solution.
Anita Walker: One other thing I do want to point out that you just said and draw a line underneath it is that you have established a good working relationship with elected leadership. You’re mayor, Mayor Dinatale, by the way, in 2017 was honored at the Commonwealth Awards as the arts mayor of Massachusetts —
Nick Capasso: Right.
Anita Walker: — based on a video presentation of how he touts the creativity of his own community.
Nick Capasso: And that video presentation was put together by the Fitchburg Art Museum and it was implemented by students at Fitchburg State University. And this is an example of the kind of partnership — look, everything we do — this is one thing I’ve learned about north central Massachusetts is you cannot do anything by yourself, because you will fail, because there are not enough resources or capacity in the region for everybody to go it alone. So, almost everything we do at the art museum now is in partnership with another entity, whether it’s the city, the university, NewVue Communities, which is the community development corporation we’re working with in the housing project. We work with the United Neighbors of Fitchburg, which is the primary service organization for Latino families in Fitchburg. We work with them on all our Latino initiatives. It’s the only way to get things done.
Anita Walker: And the other thing that I’m feeling that you’re really an exemplar of is a kind of another trend that we’ve been noticing, which is museums are turning themselves inside out. That the museum or the art or the cultural experience doesn’t solely take place once you pass through the door and get your ticket.
Nick Capasso: Right. Right. And one example of that is that we instigate public art in Fitchburg. And it’s all community based or community related. We’re not just bringing in plop art and sticking it in the city. Everything has got to addresses the specific need or desire in the community.
Anita Walker: When you first took this new approach, were people dubious, skeptical? I mean right now it feels like the wind’s at your back and there’s so much enthusiasm, but to get started, to break through the stereotype and sort of the old way of thinking, both out of the museum’s part and the community.
Nick Capasso: I mean we were very fortunate, because, as I mentioned earlier, the impetus for this came from the trustees. I’m always telling them, “It’s not my museum. It’s your museum and I as the director and there to express the will of the trustees.” And that was their will. So, that aligns everything in the museum pretty quick. So, and the trustee were eager for change. Things had been the same for a long time and they wanted something new and different. And as I said, they wanted to serve the community. And the community embraced it as well.
Anita Walker: Did you get the feeling they were just waiting to be asked?
Nick Capasso: Yes. Yes, I did. And one of the first things I did upon becoming director is in my first year — I actually went back in my calendar and I counted this up. I had 150 lunches in the first year with external stakeholders —
Anita Walker: You look good.
Nick Capasso: — in the community.
Anita Walker: That would’ve —
Nick Capasso: I know. Well, I’ve looked better, believe me. But and the whole point was not for me to meet with these folks and tell them what we were going to do. It was to shut up and listen to what the community wanted from this institution.
Anita Walker: What surprised you the most?
Nick Capasso: I think, honestly, what surprised me the most is how receptive everyone’s been and how little pushback we’ve had. Everyone was eager for this. Fitchburg has had a kind of tradition of collaboration. And they were eager to have another strong partner enter that collaboration.
Anita Walker: So, as you look to the next year, what’s down the road for you? What are your ambitions?
Nick Capasso: Well, we did a big strategic planning process and we still need to work on the museum, even further professionalize it and then just make it — I’m always telling my staff the best way to serve the community is to be the best museum we can be. And so, what is ancillary to that is the idea, and I think this is very important for museums, is that you can be oriented towards community service without dumbing down your curatorial program.
Anita Walker: These are not mutually exclusive ideas.
Nick Capasso: They are not and it’s a mistake to think that one precludes the other. And I think a lot of museums are stumbling on that these days. So, that’s important to us. And then, we have some — the plan has three large sort of initiatives in it. One is to create an on-site proper storage for our permanent collection, which is very internal. But the other is the housing project, the artists housing project. And the other thing that we just started working on is we want to create a low or no cost after school program arts based at the museum for kids in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood is one of the poorest and most diverse neighborhoods in the city. And, certainly, it fulfills our educational mission to do this, but it’s also an economic development project, because after school programs mean the difference between full and partial parental employment. If we can get 50 families in our neighborhood with full parental employment, we can change the neighborhood. We can make it a better place.
Anita Walker: And the kids are right there.
Nick Capasso: And there’s a desperate —
Anita Walker: They don’t need transportation.
Nick Capasso: — need for this. Right. And that’s — we want to keep it local. Because one of the biggest issues around anything is transportation. When I first came to Fitchburg, I talked to the school superintendent, Andre Robineau, who’s on our board now. And I said to him, “Andre, how many of your kids are coming into the art museum every year?” And he said, “Zero.” I said, “Okay. Why is that?” And he said, “Can’t afford the buses. We can’t — and we can’t afford to have somebody on the staff writing grants. We just don’t have the capacity.” So, the museum, we took it upon ourselves to write the grants to get the money to have the kids come. And now, over the past three we had a grant from a local foundation that allows every fourth grader and seventh grader in the Fitchburg public schools to come annually to the art museum. And their trips are all based around their curriculum.
Anita Walker: And having this neighborhood program for the kids, the kids will start to see the museum as belonging to them.
Nick Capasso: Exactly. Exactly. All of these things are strategically interrelated.
Anita Walker: Nick, exciting things happening. Exciting leadership happening —
Nick Capasso: Thank you.
Anita Walker: — at the Fitchburg Art Museum. Nick Capasso, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Nick Capasso: Thanks, Anita.
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