Editorial: Cue the artists — Worcester teams with Futurecity

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No one is exactly sure what will come from Worcester teaming with London-based Futurecity to develop ideas for the Theatre District.

But then, that’s what art is like.

Someone lifts a pen, a paintbrush — and expectations lift, too. We have to wait and see what develops.

Tuesday’s announcement by the Massachusetts Cultural Council strikes us as a low-risk leap into a wider look at urban planning.

The mural on the back of the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Sun staff / The Worcester Sun

The mural on the back of the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts.

In essence, Futurecity, which for more than a decade has served as a self-described “placemaker” for municipalities in England and elsewhere, will work with the state’s three largest cities to brainstorm ways to incorporate art and culture into local economic-development projects.

The focus of Futurecity Mass in Boston will be the Fenway Cultural District, while Springfield will discuss its Central Cultural District.

Here in Worcester, the canvas awaiting local artists and leaders is the downtown Worcester Theatre District, whose creative and thorough master plan was unveiled in late 2012.

“This is the next frontier of the creative economy in which the arts assert their value as equal partners in the urban realm,” MCC Executive Director Anita Walker explained in the statement. “The Fenway, downtown Springfield, and Worcester’s Downtown Theatre District are richer in every way because of the presence of artists, and cultural and heritage institutions. Futurecity Mass will help pull the arts out of the back seat and drive development in these neighborhoods.”

Futurecity Mass has a year’s contract of about $155,000, covered in nearly equal shares by the taxpayer-funded MCC and its private partner in this endeavor, The Boston Foundation. During the year, in each of the three cities, Futurecity Mass will meet with key players in the local arts and culture milieu to come up with ideas they might then pitch to businesses already investing in the respective districts. The ideas could range from unifying streetscape-type touches added across the district to a single useful, unusual or appealing installation.

On a visit to Worcester Wednesday, Futurecity’s founder, Mark Davy, met with city and cultural leaders, and took in the Theatre District on foot.

Happy Birthday to Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts!

Wikimedia Commons

Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts

The Telegram & Gazette reported that Davy mentioned to City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. an example of the kind of input he envisions. Instead of a developer’s hypothetical $10 million bridge (it’s unclear whether he was referencing the on-again, off-again skybridge proposed for the DCU Center vicinity, which is outside the Theatre District), Davy said artists might steer plans to “a sculpture that people could walk across.”

No argument; artistic perspective can indeed be valuable. Artists, for one thing, feel unencumbered by the limits that accompany budgets and board meetings. They’re sensitive to their surroundings and can be eloquent in the ways they address and alter the atmosphere.

In the Theatre District, the Wayfinding mosaic marker at Federal Square, the white lights adorning the plantings in that spot, window decorations in the Denholm Building and elsewhere, lights that shine onto ice skaters in the Worcester Common Oval, and the streetscape enhancements surrounding the Common are examples of the accessible scale in which artists are in their element, for all to appreciate. Such touches can tie people to a place — and keep them returning.

Whatever ideas come out of the meetings, expected to begin in September, they will be designed to fit in with the feel of the city and district, while standing out enough to enhance the draw there — benefitting all.

As shown on Page 10 of the Theatre District master plan, the district centers on The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, but is decidedly mixed-use. It includes the Worcester Common, the main public library, the YWCA, and a handful of city blocks in the immediate theater vicinity, including the block north of City Hall that contains the Midtown Mall.

The district is close to, but distinct from, CitySquare — a hotbed of corporate development projects on and around the site of the former downtown shopping mall — and the Canal District, with its repurposed spaces and edgy inner-city energy.

It’s unclear how the Massachusetts Cultural Commission settled on the Theatre District for Futurecity Mass’ Worcester focus. But it’s a good choice.

It doesn’t take a terribly artistic individual to see that the Theatre District in real-life 2016 is not yet the dream of vibrancy and diverse activity depicted in the master plan. As a whole, to someone going about their everyday business, it is a cranky, trafficky, litter-prone place where pedestrians, unless they’re loitering, tend to hurry to where they’re going.

[Worth noting: Hanover Theatre’s expansion to 551 Main St., celebrated in early June, includes a push, according to Augustus, to close car traffic to that part of Southbridge Street and make it a permanent pedestrian walkway.]

It’s also, of course, a place dotted with exceptional destinations and energetic collaborative projects. The Hanover Theatre and its recent next-door expansion are jawdroppers. Beauty whispers loudly in other corners, as well, such as at Worcester’s renovated main library at Salem Square. Other spots welcoming to eye, feet and memory include the recently restored Civil War memorial on the Common.

Large-scale development and restoration projects have made a real difference in Worcester in the last couple of decades, particularly in the city’s core.

Now, with last week’s announcement, comes this small, so far, but interesting and hopeful cultural development. Enter the artists, for talks facilitated by a total outsider.

For Futurecity, it’s the first-ever foray into the United States. For Worcester, and the artists and leaders selected to participate, it’s a chance to contemplate and try to add something wonderful and lasting to the city’s living room.

If an idea or two is ultimately implemented, this small leap into the unknown launched last week could add needed cohesion, a sense of inclusion, vigor, variety and/or — well, we don’t know, something creative! — to a part of downtown that deserves to be center stage for residents, workers, and visitors.

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