Somerville, MA

Contact Name
Mimi Graney
Project Dates
2005 - Present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2011
Event, Policy, Research, Business Planning, Networking, Workforce Development
ArtsUnion was launched in 2005 by the Somerville Arts Council (SAC), the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (SPCD) and several local partners with support from the MCC John and Abigail Adams Grant. ArtsUnion seeks to capitalize on the demographic and physical assets of Union Square—its vibrant ethnic mix and burgeoning artist population—to propel an entirely new cultural economic project. Union Square Main Streets, a new neighborhood-focused economic development organization, was also launched in 2005 as part of an intensive effort at renewal.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
ArtsUnion cultivates arts and culture, changes negative perceptions about the square through “place making” strategies and drives economic revitalization.
Have they changed over time?
They have not changed; the goals are still the same.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
Our stakeholders are the residents and businesses of Union Square and Somerville as a whole, local artists, design professionals, property owners, community and arts organizations, government, and more.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
Elements include: 1) event series, 2) crafts markets, 3) tours, 4) street architecture , 5) zoning. In 2009 ArtsUnion helped USMS launch Design Annex, a coworking space for design professionals to support the city’s industry cluster.
Have they been refined over time?
We’ve expanded events from outdoor summer events to include indoor and some outdoor winter happenings. The smaller, frequent craft markets in the morning were discontinued for fewer, but larger, themed markets that include interactive elements. Over the years we’ve refined the approach. Street architecture includes temporary sculpture, light displays and sculptural banners to make the most of recent roadway improvements. With arts-friendly zoning passed, we’re looking deeper into what it means to be an arts district and ways to encourage development supportive of cultural uses.
What were your major obstacles?
Despite a tiny budget and spread-thin staff ArtsUnion is rich with programming. In 2010 it presented 7 festivals, 6 themed markets, and a series of cultural and historic walking tours. How do we do so much with a shoe-string staff?
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
With a “Call to Producers” model ArtsUnion is able to diversify offerings, develop emerging leaders, and save precious cash. Producers bring their own audiences, increasing attendance and economic impact. The “Call to Producers” model allows us to better engage under-represented communities and connect with area businesses. For example, “Utsav! A Festival of Punjabi Culture” brought in the formal project partner of Somerville Community Access TV (SCAT) and the Sikh community at the Somerville Gurudwara while an evening exploring filmmaking in Haiti was produced in partnership with the Haitian Coalition. Ginger Explosion celebrated the food of 5 area restaurants, while our Ethnic Food Market tours highlight area markets and immigrant business owners. Area businesses draw in visitors with beverages or menu items in keeping with the theme of various events.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Other communities would likely want to replicate our “Call to Producers” model to more effectively leverage local resources, diversify participation and engage new partners. Also, other communities may wish to follow our lead in ongoing data collection and research to adjust programming (e.g. poor sales at morning craft markets made way for strong sales for afternoon themed market), uncover new opportunities (density of designers with home offices leading to creation of the Design Annex) and to make the case for arts as an effective tool for neighborhood revitalization.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
Since the launch we’ve seen the transformation of 17,000 sq feet of previously industrial or vacant spaces converted to creative uses, a net increase of 8 new businesses, and significant branding of Union Square as a hip, unique, creative center. A 2006 study by Clyde Barrow of UMass Dartmouth showed ArtsUnion that year documented an impact of $352,470 and 3.5 jobs.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
It created businesses, jobs, and revenue.
Were there unexpected impacts?
The scale