Transcript – Episode 50

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Edmund Barry Gaither: The great thing about the cultural district, and about this moment in Roxbury is, this is a moment of becoming. The greatest asset is to imagine the future.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Edmund Barry Gaither. He is Executive Director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Tell us about your organization.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Well, the National Center of Afro-American Artists is an organization founded by Dr. Elma Lewis, in 1968. I actually came to work for her as a very young man, in 1969. And over the long period between then and now, I was responsible for the museum program, because Miss Lewis was the artistic director of the center at large. Since her death in 2004, everything has been on my clock. We, of course, produce Black Nativity, which we’ve done for, now, 47 years. And the museum is programming all the time, every day, and still remains a big portion of my work. And a great deal of the last decade has gone into the reinvention of ourselves that we anticipate with the success of our development at Tremont Crossing, where culture and commerce connects, which will lead us to a new 31,000-square-foot facility; and finally, effective endowment, so that we can operate and be who we think we ought to be. So we see ourselves as intimate to the future of Roxbury, but also to the city and region.

Anita Walker: So, we’re going to spend a little bit of time talking about the new Roxbury Cultural District, which we are so thrilled to have you among some 40-plus cultural districts here in the Commonwealth, that have been certified by the Mass Cultural Council. But before I get into that, I do want to learn more about the vision for the center, and sort of this intersection of art and commerce. That’s an exciting ambition.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Well, we’ve been involved in cultural work in Roxbury for a very long time. Miss Lewis, who was in the first group of MacArthur Fellows, and who had a Presidential Medal of Art from Reagan, founded the Elma Lewis School in 1950. And we operated the school until the mid-1980s. Along the way, she founded the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park; and in 1968, she founded the National Center, which eventually subsumed all of those things. Her idea was to create something that would be almost like a black equivalent of Lincoln Center. So those were all in her vision. Now, just to give a sense of how expansive that was in practice, when détente was achieved with China, and the first Chinese ambassador came to the U.S., we gave him a reception with black and Caribbean food in Roxbury. When the Great Cities of the World event happened in Boston, at the celebration of Boston’s 350th anniversary, we were instrumental in Dakar, Senegal, becoming a Great City. And I brought a great exhibition of contemporary work from Dakar to the MFA, where I also work, and to the French Library. So we’ve always had a very large vision of how to be in the world. Now, our money ran out, and we had lots of financial crisis. So we said, “We’ve got to find a way for a future that can support the vision that we have for ourselves.” So in the late 80s, we started thinking about how to make a different future. And we looked around at models on which not-for-profits in the U.S. have found durable support. And we settled on an unrelated earned income model, and decided to try and become developers of Parcel P-3 in Roxbury, with the concept that ordinary economic development could be used to gift a community with a first-rate cultural and educational institution. We entered that fray in a big way in 2000; and in 2007, we received a tentative designation for what was a $350 million project of a million square feet. That was all when the markets were collapsing. We then had lots of turmoil until 2010, when we finally found our present financial partner, and started to try to get things back on track. And we seem set, now, to accomplish the outlines of that particular goal, which is that in 2020, we should open what will have been a $400 million project of a million and a quarter square feet, opposite the police headquarters. It’s a mixed-use development, with housing, offices, garage, and retail. But significantly, we will gain a new facility, at 31,000 square feet, for the museum and the National Center, and we will be substantial owners of this entire new project. So it will give us an annual income that will allow us to plan in a rational way, and develop, and it will help leverage the completion of the 19th-century building, the Abbotsford Mansion, which we presently occupy, and which needs about $4 million to be put in place. So that has actually been what has dominated the last decade and a half of my life.

Anita Walker: Wow. <laughs> I am almost speechless. You know, this is really an exciting approach. Not a lot of nonprofit cultural organizations, or cultural leaders, really see themselves more broadly as neighborhood developers.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Yes.

Anita Walker: They focus very, very specifically on sort of the cultural ambition, and then hope others will come and provide the financial support. You’re building your own economic engine to support, in an ongoing way, your cultural ambitions.

Edmund Barry Gaither: I think this is really a significant point. You know, a quick survey that I did in the 80s, looking at viability in cultural institutions, cultural institutions in the U.S. that have durable, long-term existences usually are on one of four models. They’re endowment-driven, where there’s a set-aside; they’re owned by government, in one way or another, from National Gallery to Los Angeles County Museum of Art; they’re owned by wealthy institutions, like Harvard owns, what, 16 or so museums; or they’re public-private partnerships, like the Met, and the Art Institute in Chicago. None of those were really options for us, from where we were. Looking farther abroad, there’s another model, typically used by hospitals and universities. It’s the unrelated earned income model, where the institution purchases property and holds it as income-producing property, until maybe, at some later point, it needs to bite that off. But in the meantime, it’s an income that supports the primary work of the organization, which has nothing to do with the tenants in that space. So we have this huge plot of land in Roxbury that had been denuded at the end of urban renewal, when I-95 was going to come across Roxbury, and we thought we could be instrumental in the redevelopment of that property. And what we did was, we created a not-for-profit, Elma Lewis Partners, which took– I mean, a for-profit, Elma Lewis Partners, which took on shaping this activity for us. And since it is an entity of our creation, its future purpose is to take what would have been money in the pocket for a commercial developer, and recommit it to endowing the National Center’s work in its community and in the city. So that’s the income stream that then gives us a long future. And frankly, there weren’t a lot of ways, from a relatively impoverished community. There weren’t a lot of routes to how to get to a stability that really allows you to give the service to your community and city that you want. Because you don’t want to give a substandard service, yet you can’t deliver great service unless you can afford to create the instruments that do that.

Anita Walker: So you have to sort of see yourself in two completely different molds: both as a cultural producer, and as a commercial developer.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Yes, I started out–

Anita Walker: You must have two sides of the brain that no one else does. <laughs>

Edmund Barry Gaither: As an art historian, I like organizing shows. I like writing criticism. My broad cultural view fits with the National Center, which has performing, exhibiting, and hopes to return to teaching aspects. So I want to see all of those happen. But I think I should get a certificate as a developer–

Anita Walker: Yes, you should. <laughs>

Edmund Barry Gaither: — for this long-term business course that I’ve been in for the last decade and a half.

Anita Walker: This had to be a huge learning curve for you, coming out of art history. We don’t see a lot of art historians developing commercial properties.

Edmund Barry Gaither: I’m not even sure I would recommend this to anybody, but it is an ordeal that I’ve survived.

Anita Walker: Well, you know, it’s interesting you say this, and honestly, I did not know this is the story that you were going to tell. I was actually going to talk more about the cultural district, which we will in a minute, but I’m so fasc–

Edmund Barry Gaither: Well, this fits importantly in the cultural district.

Anita Walker: It does, but what you’re describing is indeed an approach that, elsewhere in the world, is a lot more common. It’s developers seeing the benefits of the cultural asset. So if they’re building a high-rise condominium, they can add two more luxury condo floors, and then underwrite the performance hall at the ground retail level, and provide that to the community as a cultural asset. They get the benefit of proximity to something that is beloved– the cultural asset– and the performers, or the people who utilize the space, don’t have the burden of that real estate on them.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Here was a huge plus in our situation: We originated the idea and found the development partner, but what that meant, in practical terms, was we needed to find a development vehicle that was large enough so that it would throw off the support to do what we wanted to do. From our first concept, we had to retailor the scale, because everything, in the end, is tied to performers– to how economic portions perform in support of the cultural portions. And we didn’t want to end up with a facility and no way to operate it, or any of those kinds of things. So we were, and remain, very careful in balancing how all of these pieces complement each other.

Anita Walker: And the difference between what you’re doing, and other cases I’m familiar with elsewhere, is that the developer basically owns the whole project.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Yes.

Anita Walker: And the cultural organization either has access to or benefits from the performance component of it, but they don’t derive the profits that the developer is deriving, but you are.

Edmund Barry Gaither: We get our percentage of profit, based on our percentage of ownership, every year, and our percentage of ownership remains very considerable.

Anita Walker: Okay. Now, let’s put this back in the cultural district and talk about the implications there.

Edmund Barry Gaither: The great thing about the cultural district, and about this moment in Roxbury, is this is a moment of becoming. It is a moment when the greatest asset is to imagine the future that can be for the cultural district in Roxbury. We have all of the assets. We have multiple communities where artistic production happens; for example, Hibernian Hall, right in the square, ourselves not very far from the square. We have a wonderful variety of cultural exponents, from Suya Joint, with Nigerian food, to Cape Verdean food. I mean, if you wanted to get a taste of the kind of global-bloc world, you could do so easily, within that world. We have rich cultural intersection. Just at one edge, we have the new Islamic Center, which is the largest in the East. We have, just a little ways the other direction, places like Twelfth Baptist, that have their roots going back to the beginning of the 19th century, with the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, and with the relocation of congregations, as the location of the black community has grown. So we have those things, and we have the old history of Roxbury, because Roxbury was founded the same year as Boston. And they’re the same age. We still even have the physical material for which Roxbury is named: the numerous outcroppings of Roxbury puddingstone, and the many buildings built of it. Because Roxbury’s name literally means “rock town,” and it’s for that stone that it is known. So we have all of these layers of history that are laid over, and we are a community that is not so dense that it doesn’t have room to grow. So, even for the richness of our present base, we have room to grow that in new directions. So I’m committed to the notion that Roxbury will become a destination.

Anita Walker: Well, and you have authenticity.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Yes.

Anita Walker: So your history is present, and there’s evidence of it.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Very much the jazz and musical history, which are a rich, rich, rich part of Roxbury. And all of those things are there to bring to flourish again. It’s the work of imagining how these assets are made into a new and exciting presentation. I would like it to be the case that nobody lands at Logan, except they immediately say, “I’m headed to Roxbury.”

Anita Walker: Well, Roxbury is indeed becoming, with Edmund Barry Gaither, our Creative Mind Out Loud. Thank you.

Edmund Barry Gaither: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

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