, Gloucester, MA

November 15, 2012

Editorial: City's downtown merits recognition as 'cultural district'

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — While communities across the state are working on applications to gain designation as a recognized Massachusetts cultural district, it’s to the credit of Cape Ann’s active arts and cultural communities that two of the first five, and now three of the first dozen are in our area and already have theirs in place.

So one may well wonder whether Gloucester needs a second such district, and whether Cape Ann needs or deserved a fourth.

But the truth is, the proposed Downtown Gloucester Cultural District now being sought by the city’s Committee for the Arts and endorsed earlier this week by the City Council represents perhaps the ideal use of the designation, given the wide breadth of historic and artistic sites covered by the suggested area. And city officials and members of the local arts community pushing for the recognition — like Judith Hoglander, Bob Whitmarsh and many others — deserve to get the state Cultural Council’s emphatic approval.

If it is recognized by the state, the Downtown Gloucester district would join the city’s own Rocky Neck Cultural District and the Rockport Cultural District — both approved in the first wave of five districts recognized last March — and the Essex River Cultural District, which was granted its designation in October. Yet, given that it encompasses everything from the city’s waterfront — and attractions like Maritime Gloucester — to the Cape Ann Museum and all that lies in between, the city’s downtown cultural district looms as perhaps the richest of the Cape Ann group.

For while it would theoretically include galleries, the Cape Ann Community Cinema, which hosts all sorts of artists’ visits and special presentations beyond featuring films, it also includes true historic sites, like the founding Unitarian Universalist Church on Middle Street, Gloucester’s historic and iconic City Hall building, historic homes like the Sargent House, and much more.

It would be nice, of course, if the designation as a cultural district were to bring such districts or perhaps nonprofits within their boundaries state grants, or some pool of money that could be leveraged to present various showcases, or perhaps allow for needed maintenance on some of the recognized historic sites. Alas, that’s not the case. For now, facilities recognized as being within a local cultural district must be content with the designation bringing a listing on the state Cultural Council’s website, and a marketing boost that can come with that. Yet that listing and promotion alone can mean a significant new tourism boost when school and other arts groups look to target places to visit.

The speed with which the state’s Cultural Council is adding new “districts” to its designated list may soon pose a problem. If these early five, 12 and perhaps 25 or so cultural district recognitions are granted to hundreds of cities, towns, and neighborhoods acoss the state, it may, unfortunately, diminish the significance of any of them.

But let there be no question about the significance and appropriateness of Downtown Gloucester as a true cultural center, in every sense of the word. And the state’s Cultural Council should recognize that as well.