The center of Watertown may become a cultural district, which would allow the area’s arts and culture groups, restaurants and businesses to be promoted as a destination for people in and around the city, and even for tourists.
Receiving approval to be a cultural district is a multi-step application process, concluding with approval by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said Liz Helfer, the City’s Public Arts & Culture Planner.
The application must include a partnership of representatives from arts and culture institutions, artists, and someone from the City. Helfer is part of the group putting together the proposal for the Cultural District. The Cultural District Committee has held three meetings, and the next meeting will be on March 3.
The group includes representatives from Watertown’s cultural institutions, including the Mosesian Center for the Arts, the Watertown Free Public Library, the Armenian Museum of America, New Repertory Theatre, the organizers of the town-wide art projects like Yard Art, and members of the Public Arts Master Plan Committee.
The application will also include a marketing plan.
“This is a really big deal because the whole goal of creating the cultural district is to create a destination,” Helfer said. “It’s about creating a tourist draw, about saying, ‘Look, we have something really cool going on here, everyone should come visit.’ And, it’s meant to be an economic driver, so the marking plan really sets the tone of the key things that the cultural district is meant to implement.”
The cultural district would not just promote established arts and culture institutions.
“The other goal, that I feel like exists side by side, is attracting artists and creative endeavors and say, look we have this going on we have a group willing to promote whatever you are doing, you are going to want to collaborate with, talk to, help you find a space, and work together to push things forward,” Helfer said.
Along with performing arts and visual arts, promoting cultural activities will also be part of the cultural district’s mission. This could include activities at Watertown’s Armenian churches, the Hellenic Center or other institutions in town. It also includes the City’s museums, the Armenian Museum and the Historical Society of Watertown‘s Edmund Fowle House.
If the cultural district designation is granted, the district can apply for grant money, Helfer said, and the State recently significantly increased the amount of money available.
“The money allocated to a cultural district can be used for marketing purposes: making a website, creating a brochure, materials that might be distributed to visitors so we can engage visitors,” Helfer said. “They can also be used to actually host events that we want to make sure are happening from year to year. It can be used for beatification, like signage we want in the district, and entities that exist there, or promote. So, like ‘Mosesian Center This Way.’ Even if it isn’t in the district.”
One of the big questions that must be addressed in the application, Helfer said, is where the boundaries of the cultural district will be.
“The boundaries are supposed to help create a destination but we are not super limited by the boundaries to including organizations that might exist outside the boundaries as satellite entities that we want to promote, too,” Helfer said.
The group has looked around, and there are multiple options, but the district is supposed to be walkable, so not all of the arts institutions will be able to be located inside the district.
“We are really thinking of the Watertown Square, Main Street Corridor area,” she said. “That’s where a lot of our cultural programming occurs. We have the Summer Concert Series, we have the Farmers Market, we host Pride in Saltonstall Park. It is where the moving play from New Rep happened — they came down and held it near the Library.”
The Mosesian Center for the Arts, on Arsenal Street, was considered, but is about a mile from Watertown Square so it was considered too far to be walkable, said Helfer, who added that the group considers half a mile as walkable. Also, the Mosesian Center is already a destination for the arts.
This is not the first time that the cultural district designation has been sought, but none of the previous efforts came to fruition.
“I first learned about it when I was still running Hatch (the Library’s makerspace), and was asked to be on the committee pursuing creating a district,” Helfer said. “It fell apart, but we learned couple other attempts in the past. We thought it was a very good idea, I just think we didn’t have what it needed on the government side of things.”
This time around, Helfer can serve as the City’s point person.
“I can really push things along and keep the ball moving forward,” she said. “That’s a key part of it, because the application to create a cultural district has to come from the municipality.”
The Cultural District Committee will submit the proposal to the City Council. The Councilors must pass a resolution saying that they want to create a cultural district, Helfer said. Then the application can be sent to the Mass. Cultural Council to be considered for approval.
“I’m hoping that by 2024 that we have a cultural district designation,” Helfer said.
Those interested in participating in the March 3 Cultural District Committee meeting should contact Liz Helfer by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a terrific idea. Sure hope it gains traction.
Living on Myrtle it is, for me, an easy walk.
Does this mean that there will be some sort of restrictions on development there? It would be helpful if an arts district could encourage all the glass high rises to stay away….
In order to have a real Arts District, an area must have a cluster of arts facilities. So how about discussing turning the old police station into a a gallery and artists’ studios? There would be synergy with the Armenian Museum.
Then find a way to incentivize other arts uses in the Square. The arts are quite often the leading edge of the revitalization of depressed areas.
Make sure that the new performance facility in Saltonstall Park is first rate and can accommodate more and increasingly better programs each summer.
But you can’t have an arts district without a critical mass of artistic activity. Boosting the arts will help lift up the area. The right investments will yield a beneficial return and will bolster businesses that chose to locate in the district.
“. . .the marking plan really sets the tone of the key things that the cultural district is meant to implement.”
In addition, may I respectfully submit that it is not the marketing plan that sets the tone, but rather the artistic activities. Without programs of serious quality, the marketing is just puffery. The Cultural District Committee should focus attracting artists and their work, first and foremost. The marketing serves to draw attention to the work.
To be impactful long term, the district really has to become a center for things that people want to see and hear.