Economic development program helps artists build assets

By By Beth Perdue
An innovative Berkshire-area program that helps artists build working capital has expanded to all of Massachusetts, including the SouthCoast area.
In 2011, the New Bedford Economic Development Council joined a long list of partners to bring Assets for Artists, a matched savings grant program, to the region.
In the program, artists who meet savings goals and complete financial trainings can receive a savings match for working capital or down payment assistance for the purchase of a first-time home.
According to Blair Benjamin, founder of the organization, Assets for Artists takes an existing community development financial product designed to help low-to-moderate income people and tailors it to artists.
Benjamin, director of real estate and community development at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, said that after three successful years of serving the Berkshire area, Assets for Artists expanded in 2011, thanks to increased funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
The organization which worked with 33 artists in its first three years, expects to almost double that number in 2011 with about 25 new participants.
The program received 140 applications before its April deadline this year, about a half dozen of them from the New Bedford area, he said.
Artists save $1,500 in the program within a 30-month period for which they are awarded a $1,500 matching grant. A second option helps artists save for first-time home purchases. Those in this track save $2,000, over the same time period, for a $4,000 match.
Most artists are in the asset-building savings track, Benjamin said.
“We have to choose very carefully on the homeowner side to make sure these are folks that are really ready for home ownership and who will be successful even though they are below income levels,” he said.
Giving artists 30 months to meet savings goals allows them to save at a pace that meets their needs, according to Benjamin.
“Some people save a couple of hundred a month and move through the program fairly quickly and have a business plan all worked out,” he said. “Other folks, it takes them a little longer.”
Artists who have been helped to date have used capital for home purchases, to start new product lines or target new customers, and to finance a presence at events like the New York Gift Fair.
As part of the program, grantees also participate in financial and business trainings and benefit from the interaction with their peers.
“We hope that (the training) is probably as valuable, or more valuable, than the fairly modest amount of money they’re getting,” said Benjamin.
The city of New Bedford got involved this year as a way to support the growing number of artists working in the city, said Patricia Daughton, NBEDC creative economy development officer.
Daughton cited several factors behind the city’s creative growth, including the long-running AHA! community nights, revitalization of the downtown area, and the rebirth of the Zeiterion Theater. Each year about 90 artists participate in a New Bedford Open Studio event and the NBEDC has a database of about 160 artists working in the area, she added.
New Bedford also has something akin to an artist magnet, according to Daughton – a large inventory of inexpensive warehouse spaces and an attractive location between two prime cities, Boston and Providence.
Getting involved in this program, she said allows New Bedford to support the growing cultural industry.
“There comes a time when you have to recognize that there are certain services that are needed to take businesses to the next level,” said Daughton, adding that the NBEDC also offers financial and other business trainings that can benefit artists.
The creative economy has a significant, if somewhat subtle, impact on the city, she said.
“The importance of the creative economy in New Bedford is that it creates a quality of life that attracts the other businesses. It creates a vibe as a place people want to move to, that businesses want to move to,” she said. “You don’t move to a city without checking out the culture scene.”
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May 31, 2011 12:36 PM
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