The Cultural Facilities Fund is an economic lifeline for small cultural organizations – including four in the Berkshires

October 30, 2023 : The Berkshire Eagle, Tony Dobrowolski

PITTSFIELD — This year has been terrible financially for regional theaters across the country, even worse than the pandemic year of 2020.

"We have hit a perfect storm of bad circumstances that we're all trying to survive," said Nick Paleologos, the executive director of Berkshire Theatre Group.

Yet, the organization has still found a way to fund solar panels on the roof of the Colonial Theatre and a nearby warehouse — without touching its operating budget.

The state's Cultural Facilities Fund is responsible for that.

BTG is one of four Berkshire cultural facilities, and one of seven from Western Massachusetts, that received fiscal 2024 funding for infrastructure improvements from the Cultural Facilities Fund, which is run jointly by the Mass Cultural Council and MassDevelopment. That makes up a quarter of the 28 total facilities from across the state that received a combined $3.14 million in the latest round of funding this year.

State and local officials marked the occasion Monday with a news conference at the Colonial Theatre. During his remarks, Paleologos referred to the Cultural Facilities Fund as a lifesaver for small cultural entities like BTG.

"It relieves us of operating expenses that we would otherwise have to divert to buy solar panels," Paleologos said, "and sustainability for us is the Golden Fleece. That's the thing that we're trying to get to: long-term sustainability.

"This partnership is unique," he said. "In most other states if you wanted to put solar panels or fix a roof and some other capital expenditure, you'd have to find that money in your operational budget, which these days is strained to the limit."

BTG received a $153,000 capital grant from the Cultural Facilities Fund. The three other Berkshire recipients are Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum in Lenox, and the Sheffield Historical Society.

Barrington Stage will use its $112,000 grant to update theatrical lighting and audio equipment at the St. Germain Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center. Ventfort Hall received $149,000 to repair and rebuild four chimneys on the Gilded Age mansion's roof. Sheffield Historical Society will use its $78,000 grant for drainage, grout and foundation work to the Old Stone Store.

Wendy Healey, Ventfort Hall's executive director, said capital grants like this one will prevent the mansion, which was built in 1893 and is still in need of major renovations, from "disappearing into the ground."

"We couldn't do it without the grant and all of the people that are here," she said.

The Cultural Facilities Fund was established in 2007 when former state Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, was head of the House's Economic Development Committee and is funded annually by the governor's Capital Investment Plan. The Healy-Driscoll administration invested $10 million into the fund in fiscal 2024.

Mass. Cultural Council Director Michael Bobbitt said the agency was able to fund about 80 percent of the requests that it received.

The funding is used for "everything from renovating theaters, putting in solar systems and putting in new elevators," Bobbitt said.

"If you're running an arts organization you tend to be raising money for general operations and programs, which takes a lot of time — and money," Bobbitt said. "So if your roof needs repair, where is the money going to come from? Having the state support capital projects is good."

State Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, who chairs the Senate's Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development Committee, said the funds from the program that are spent in the Berkshires pay off.

"Every dollar invested here is going to be paid back tenfold," Mark said.

"We know that arts and culture is business and jobs," said MassDevelopment's President and CEO Daniel Rivera.

Mayor Linda M. Tyer said it took a long time for Pittsfield to join the Berkshires' cultural economy, but that those venues have now made a major economic impact on the city.

"The Colonial Theatre is the flagship of the arts and culture renaissance in Pittsfield," Tyer said.