Maynard’s downtown is lined with art galleries and pottery studios. Marlborough celebrates its diversity with an annual heritage festival. Concord boasts historic sites that draw tourists from around the world.
What do they have in common? They all have established cultural districts to highlight their local arts scenes and promote local businesses and tourism.
Now Arlington has joined in, becoming the latest community to obtain a cultural district designation from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
“We have a concentration of arts and culture here in Arlington and everybody needs to know about it,” said Stephanie Marlin-Curiel, cochairwoman of the Arlington Commission on Arts and Culture. “Sometimes it’s very hidden to Arlington residents . . . but not only do we have lots of arts and culture, we have a lot of creative businesses.”
One of Arlington’s major art projects this summer was a series of public art installations called Pathways, which celebrated the Minuteman Bikeway’s 25th anniversary.
For the town’s most recent public art project, “Ripple,” nearly 60 town volunteers contributed giant knitted sleeves to wrap around trees along the bikeway. Adria Arch, the project’s coordinator, scouted the area and attached the lower pieces over two days in mid-September, then enlisted the help of two arborists from the landscaping service SavATree to reach the highest points.
“They hitched themselves into the branches and contorted themselves into the craziest positions to reach and install each separate piece of knitting and crochet,” Arch said. “It was quite amazing.”
The following day, dozens of members of the Arlington community celebrated the cultural district designation in the reading room of Robbins Library.
A cultural district is a specific geographical area in a city or town that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents, serving as a center of cultural, artistic, and economic activity. A designation can enable a district to better market itself, bringing in both tourists and grant money.
Since the program was established in 2012, 43 cultural districts have been approved in Massachusetts, from Cape Cod to the Pioneer Valley.
The Arlington Cultural District extends 1.3 miles from Milton Street in East Arlington to Mill Street in Arlington Center. Bound by Massachusetts Avenue and the bikeway, it contains dozens of restaurants and cafes, shops, and two theaters.
As Arlington grew to its current population of more than 40,000, there was little coordination between members of the arts community.
“It’s always been small groups or organizations working on their own,” said Arch, who also serves as cochairwoman of the arts and culture commission. “People were having events on the same days. People didn’t know about what was happening in town. . . . We were all spinning our wheels — all trying to do the same thing, but nobody [was] coordinating us.”
To combat the problem, the commission was founded in 2013. After six months, it decided to apply for the cultural district designation.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council asks applicants to determine a boundary for a district that is compact and walkable, then to hold a community conversation to determine what its long-term goals are. The district also must form a partnership with the local governing body, along with other public and private organizations.
“It’s a multi-pronged process and it takes time to pull that together,” said Meri Jenkins, program manager for the Massachusetts cultural districts initiative.
Once districts are granted the designation, they are by no means off the hook. Jenkins said the districts are expected to provide the cultural council with a yearly report on the progress they’ve made at achieving their goals. Districts also provide two sets of data: the occupancy rates of businesses and the number of visitors coming to the district.
“We also convene the districts on a yearly basis,” Jenkins said. The council’s staff “are available to act as consultants to the districts and provide time and effort to help boost their capacities.”
Natick was one of the original five districts awarded the designation in 2012. Athena Pandolf, executive director of the Natick Center Cultural District, said the program has helped highlight what the town has to offer.
“I think it adds livability, it adds excitement. It adds that strong cultural presence people are looking for,” Pandolf said. “We had geographically a great center as far as where our town common is, some really great historical buildings . . . as well as the arts and culture environment.”
Natick has hosted several events to involve downtown businesses. Two years ago, organizers started Natick Night, a series of themed events taking place in front of local businesses on Thursday nights. During those nights, the cultural district hosted musical performances along with a gallery opening.
Marlborough’s downtown was designated as a cultural district in October 2012 because of its historical sites and the diverse nature of its community. This was the 22d year the town hosted its annual Heritage Weekend Festival.
“It kind of works hand in hand with the district designation because . . . Marlborough’s got quite a diverse cultural base,” said Susanne Morreale-Leeber, president of the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce. People now “come to downtown; they see what we’re all about.”
The Concord Center cultural district was also designated in 2012, encompassing portions of Main Street, Walden Street, and Monument Square. West Concord also has a cultural district of its own, which was awarded in 2014.
“I think people are quite proud of both districts,” said Jane Obbagy, executive director of the Concord Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a way of putting yourself on the map but also trying to draw visitors both inside the community and outside of it.”
Maynard’s cultural district designation was awarded in April. The district includes ArtSpace-Maynard, a nonprofit community arts center.
“Because the cultural district includes not just arts but entertainment,’’ said Maynard Town Planner Bill Nemser, “our downtown is really a neat distribution of everything from arts to ethnic restaurants to theater to cool crafts.”
Frank Vasello, a Provincetown artist, will be installing the next Pathways piece in Arlington sometime during early October. Vasello will use natural materials to make a sculpture path that will be integrated into a staircase connecting the bikeway to the Spy Pond playground.
“There are places in Massachusetts that I would think of as hidden gems,” said Jenkins, the statewide initiative’s program manager.
“Arlington is a suburban community — very high number of residences, but the backdrop and the history and the cultural organizations within the community are of extremely high caliber, and easy enough for a resident to overlook what’s right on their doorstep,” she said.
“So what we hope is that this will encourage people to look again.”