Third-Party Operator Model Ostensibly Off the Table, City Communications Lacking
(Somerville Wire) – With community meetings underway to help plan the future of Somerville’s mixed-use arts building, the Center for the Arts at the Armory, the anchor tenant, is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The City has decided to move forward with studying two of the five operation models proposed by consultant Create Today. Under the first model, the City would retain ownership of the building and clear the current tenants to act as the sole operator and arts programmer for the building. The second model is similar to the current state of the Armory, but the city would select the tenants.
For the Center for the Arts at the Armory, the building’s anchor tenant, the future looks bleak under model one and uncertain under model two. The not-for-profit’s board of directors issued a statement July 21, calling attention to the dilemma.
“Our only hope of survival is the rejection of model one—the ‘City as owner and operator’ and we need everyone’s support on this,” it said. The Arts at the Armory is set to hold a community meeting August 15.
According to the statement, the meeting will be an opportunity for CAA to present its “mission, leadership business plan, events, programs, services, and successes” to the community and provide guidance on how to get involved in the planning process. “We want to educate our community about what our organization does and what the community would lose if our organization dissolves,” the board said.
Tenants, particularly CAA, have occupied an awkward position in the planning process. CAA has decades of experience running hundreds of events a year in the Armory building, but the organization is considered an interested party, and for that reason, the City and consultant Create Today have held it at arm’s length.
Co-Director and CEO of CAA Stephanie Scherpf said she’s attended three tenant meetings with Create Today. None of them have been made public. Scherpf has participated in a stakeholder interview, focus groups, and post-it exercises — but the not-for-profit has not been consulted as an expert.
According to Scherpf, Create Today held a meeting with tenants June 29 and presented the five models that were on the table and explained the city had decided to pursue two. It was the first time Scherpf had seen the models.
“Despite seeing the models for the first time, and being surprised they had made a determination, I strongly advocated that they needed to consider the third-party model,” Scherpf said. Many attendees at the community meeting on Monday echoed the call to include a third-party model and honor CAA’s legacy in programming.
Create Today and city officials held two community meetings Monday and presented the public with the same two models, but the consultant muddied the waters.
“Now this is not decided. These are very black and white, because this is for planning and modeling. We’re looking at two dramatically different opportunities. This is not even to say that the City would necessarily go with one or the other—it could be somewhere blended between the two. But we wanted to share these two particular models as the ones that the City is moving forward with examining through this process,” Kate Ingram Souza, chief executive officer of Create Today, told the crowd in the Armory cafe Monday.
If the City has eliminated the third-party operator model, it’s unclear why or how. Senior Economic Development Planner Ted Fields was unavailable for comment. Voicemails were left with Souza of Create Today on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but the Wire received no response.
“If the City has taken a third-party operator off the table, they need to provide a justification,” Councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad said. “Arts at the Armory is providing a ton of performance spaces for diverse artists—an increasingly rare opportunity in our city,” Mouakad added.
Jenn Harrington, a local arts activist, said Arts at the Armory should be more involved in the planning process. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about CAA. I would feel better if they were part of this research process and recognized as the people that were doing it right. It seems they’ve been put in this spot where they could very well lose the building they’ve committed to. It’s a form of displacement and I can’t believe it’s happening given all the anti-displacement efforts in the city.”
Somerville resident Ron Newman agreed with leveraging CAA’s expertise, “I think it’s important to draw on the experience of the existing operator of the armory. They’ve been running programming here for many years, and it would not make sense at all to dissolve them and start from scratch. So I think any model that’s used here should have continuity with what we already have, and not tear everything up and start over.”
The Center for the Arts at the Armory Board of Directors plans to issue a petition to Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and the city council in mid-August. It will call for the rejection of the city-owner-and-operator model one and greater transparency in the planning process. Scherpf expects to have more details in two weeks.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire