Community Leadership from the Inside Out
Berkshire County in western Massachusetts is an incredibly rich place for the arts. It contains such a critical mass of artists, arts institutions, and arts resources that in 2016 the county was named the 12th most arts vibrant small- to mid-sized community in the nation by the National Center for Arts Research.
I live in North Adams, the smallest city in the state and second most populated municipality in Berkshire County. Like the rest of the region, it is home to a number of creative organizations, most notably the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA. It is also coming to be known as a cultural hub: a place where artists live, work, engage with each other, and activate their community.
With this abundance of creative activity comes a necessity for arts leadership, although here, these positions aren’t reserved for executive directors and upper management of large institutions. A new generation of community arts leaders in North Adams is surfacing as junior employees and other non-executive workers are beginning to cultivate leadership roles outside of work.
Regardless of whether the region’s cultural organizations practice collaborative leadership internally, it’s the bottom-up approach to external leadership that I find to be a unique and inspiring model. Many arts workers here want to play an active role in shaping the community they live in. In this way, community leaders are emerging from the inside out, not the outside in. I spoke with three women who have contributed to the arts ecosystem in North Adams in huge ways while working full time, and I uncovered several trends that are driving this new pattern of leadership.
They don’t consider themselves arts leaders.
For many young artists and managers working on passion projects, self-identifying as a community leader feels inauthentic. “I strive for a leadership position in the same way that I strive to excel in my work. The work is more important to me than the recognition,” said Francesca Shanks, 30. While serving as Social Media and Marketing Manager at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams, Francesca also volunteers as the marketing director of a local record label. “I work 20 hours every week on music stuff. I’m doing the work and the visibility of the label has risen since I’ve been doing it. I like to have my actions speak [for the position I hold in the community].”
For others, validation as a leader feels premature. “I wanted to be an arts leader, but I hadn’t gotten there yet. I was still testing that ground,” explained Jess Sweeney, 27, co-creator and founder Common Folk Artist Collective. “I didn’t understand or know how to understand my impact as a leader.” Her motives of supporting the community by providing new creative opportunity propelled her forward and ultimately enabled the organization to succeed.
Serving their communities is just—if not more—important to them than serving their employers.
Although jobs in the arts field are coveted, these arts workers are determined to achieve professional and personal success if those are not one in the same. “I don’t think any of us ever contemplated, no matter how much we had on our plates, dropping Common Folk,” recounted Jess. “I certainly didn’t. I maybe have at times, just under the stress of working a full-time job and trying to start an organization. But at the end of the day, that’s where I want to be.”
Kate Barber, 32, was the publications assistant at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) when she first joined the board, and later became the managing director, of the Makers’ Mill—a fiber and printmaking makerspace in North Adams. “I attended a community outreach meeting focusing on printmaking and was interested in taking a more active role in making a shared community space a reality,” she said. “I strongly believe in the benefit of shared studio spaces, and even in graduate school had an interest in learning about, developing, and eventually being part of building one.”
Their employers provide helpful resources such as a flexible schedule, programming assistance, and encouragement.
Kate was able to control her own schedule as an hourly employee at WCMA, but Francesca and Jess enjoyed working with organizations whose culture was predicated on service. Jess was managing Common Folk in 2015 while working at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition as a program associate. “[NBCC] recognized that was something I was passionate about,” she explained. “I tried to create ways that Common Folk could collaborate and they were all about that, but that’s also the mission of the coalition. It’s a deeply collaborative agency.”
In addition to feeling supported by her superiors at MCLA, Francesca believes that executive leadership is committed to enhancing the quality of life for its students by encouraging the growth of the local music scene. “Chris [Hantman, the label’s owner] works at MCLA, the Design Lab [where some of the performances take place] is an MCLA space. The college benefits.”
They want to help nurture artists’ voices at a very early stage.
Many of the organizations and efforts led by the new generation of arts leaders in North Adams are supporting the development of creativity in youth, students, and underserved residents. Although large organizations often anchor creative communities, this kind of open platform for participation is necessary for a developing a robust and accessible arts ecosystem. “I hope that we’re helping to redefine what creativity is and how you can utilize it in your life and appreciate it,” said Jess.
“I do think that people, especially people who’ve grown up here and are stuck in that industrial mindset, come into Common Folk and realize that the boundaries aren’t as strict and that you can have support in whatever art form you want to offer, no matter what level or skill.”