Montserrat College of Art Makes Beverly a Destination

March 20, 2015

Destination: Beverly BY ALEXANDRA PECCI, North Shore Magazine

Like so many North Shore towns, Beverly has a rich history. Originally part of the Naumkeag Territory and settled in 1626 by Roger Conant, Beverly played a major role in two revolutions. During the American Revolutionary War, one of the first U.S. military ships sailed from Beverly Harbor in 1775. Little more than a decade later, in 1787, Beverly became home to the first cotton mill built in America, helping to spark the Industrial Revolution.

Today, though, Beverly is experiencing a renaissance that isn’t powered by shipbuilding or cotton. It’s powered by the arts.

“There’s a long 20-or 30-year tradition in the United States to understanding how the arts contribute to economic development,” says Steve Immerman, president of Montserrat College of Art and co-president of the nonprofit downtown revitalization organization Beverly Main Streets.

“I don’t think it’s escaped anybody’s attention…that people want to have the arts in their community,” he says.

And Beverly certainly does have arts in its community. It’s home to two of the North Shore’s most important and beloved artistic centers: Montserrat College of Art, which was founded in the late 1960s and has flourished into a hotbed of vibrant creativity, and the North Shore Music Theatre, which has been transporting audiences with its musicals since 1955.

In fact, the histories of the two institutions are linked: Montserrat School of Art initially began as an initiative of the North Shore Music Theatre before eventually becoming Montserrat College of Art, an independent, accredited institution that awards degrees.

Today, Montserrat is at the center of Beverly’s arts, culture, and creative economy, with several galleries, many of which are free and open to the public. Additionally, dozens of visiting artists from around the world arrive on campus each year to make art, share it with the community, and give talks— also free and open to the public.

“The hidden gem of Beverly is our collective arts community,” says Mayor Michael Cahill. He points, for instance, to the city’s work with Montserrat and Beverly Main Streets to commission world-renowned artist Anna Schuleit Haber to create The Beverly Oracle, a bold and significant public art project.

The momentum toward Beverly as a city driven by the arts is evident in other ways, too. Beverly is home to the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, as well as the gallery and studios at Porter Mill Studios and Zeitgeist Gallery & Studios. Its restaurant scene is thriving, too. And at press time, the city’s downtown was under consideration for designation as a Cultural Arts District from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In fact, a Beverly Arts District is part of Beverly Main Streets’ “20/20” initiative to revitalize the downtown.

“The top priority for Beverly was to reinforce its identity as an arts and culture community,” Immerman says of the project.

The idea is to make downtown a destination unto itself, and it seems to be working. One resident who lives downtown, Ashley Springett, says she loves walking across the street to Beverly Common or just a few blocks to Dane Street Beach with her son.

“There are parks and beaches aplenty, plus a cute downtown with lots of tasty eateries,” Springett says. “I feel safe walking and driving around the city of Beverly, and appreciate that we have Montserrat College of Art.”

“There were several of us in Beverly who were very concerned that The Cabot would somehow disappear,” says Van Ness, who lives in Beverly and co-owns CinemaSalem. The people behind The Cabot Performing Arts Center are also helping with the downtown revitalization. Henry Bertolon, Bill Howard, Richard Marino, Thaddeus S. Siemasko, and Paul Van Ness worked together to buy and reopen the iconic Cabot Theatre (home to Le Grand David and His Spectacular Magic Company for 35 years) after it was closed for nine months and on the real estate market for 18 months.

After doing a few minor renovations, including painting the lobby and installing a small digital projector, The Cabot reopened in mid-November with several live shows and films on the calendar. But the team behind the purchase of The Cabot has other major renovations in mind.

“We want to transform this 94-year-old, beautiful music palace into a 21st-century performing arts center,” explains Van Ness. The three-year plan—which he says is dependent on community sup- port—will include the installation of digital film and sound equipment; replacing all of the seats on the main floor; making the building ADA compliant so it’s accessible for people with disabilities; renovating the lobby to highlight its largely hidden 1920s features; and adding a restaurant, bar, and retail space.

Van Ness says the aim of the project is to make The Cabot Performing Arts Center the kind of community arts destination that the theatre was in its heyday, before the advent of television.

“It was a place in Beverly that people visited every week,” he says. “It still has been this place of beauty and escape for people. It becomes more than just a building and more than just a business. It becomes part of people’s lives.”

Van Ness sounds confident that the community will continue to sup- port The Cabot as it enters the next phase of its life. And the theatre isn’t the only thing in Beverly that’s being improved and invested in. Mayor Cahill says this spring the city will start Route 1A/Rantoul Street road reconstruction downtown, as well as a Brimbal Avenue/ Sohier Road connector road improvement project. It will also build a new middle school, slated to open in 2018, and continue work on the “re-zoning and thoughtful development of our waterfront,” Cahill says.

“We have so many wonderful assets here, it won’t take as many investments to make that stronger in Beverly,” Van Ness says. “The in- vestments that people are making are going to pay huge dividends to the downtown.”

Courtesy of North Shore Magazine