Rock and a Hard Place: The WCCMA

This is the third article in a series dealing with expanding arts and cultural offerings in Claremont, New Hampshire. We’re trying to unpack how a community can approach expanding these amenities to attract young people without putting pressure on existing residents. For more, please see part 1 and part 2

At the beginning of this series, I promised you arts. After much (important) haggling over terminology, we’ve arrived.

Today I’m publishing an interview with Melissa Richmond – Claremont native, millennial, and the Founder and Executive Director of the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts (wcc-ma.org). The WCCMA has been active for the better part of the last decade. Melissa has worked hard to build an organization from the bottom up. She has an important vantage point on the issues we’ve been talking about (gentrification, the arts as economic development, etc.).

Fair warning – this post is a little longer. If you don’t get through the whole thing, please check out the WCCMA’s website and consider joining us in Claremont for one of their upcoming events.

Thank you for joining us for this Melissa. Could you give us the elevator pitch for the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts?

WCCMA is a small, grassroots nonprofit focused on providing high-quality and professional music and arts experiences to the greater Claremont community. Our major areas of focus are performance, community and youth education, and creative community building, and we strive to do all that while removing any financial barriers for those struggling financially. We operate primarily out of the Union Church in West Claremont, but try to bring a lot of our programming into the City Center to make it easier to access.

Why this mission for you? Why did you choose this way to give back and get involved?

Young Claremonters learn about Taiko drumming from Burlington Taiko.

Young Claremonters learn about Taiko drumming from Burlington Taiko.

I was born and raised in Claremont, and music and art were my 2 primary interests growing up. Eventually I had to decide between the two focuses because there were no activities available outside school that would allow me to continue learning both. I chose to pursue music, but that was a challenge because there weren’t any local flute instructors. I was fortunate to have natural music ability that got me through, but I devoured everything the schools had available. I was accepted to the Bachelor of Music program at Dalhousie University, but I was so far behind that I had to take nearly 2 additional years of music study to catch up to my peers in theory and repertoire.

During the last year of my degree, I was fortunate to be able to work with a few particularly inspiring educators and performers. Early in 2008 I attended the performance of one of them, Dinuk Wijeratne, and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I left that performance thinking that it was a tragedy that my community was not experiencing events like that. From that inspiration, and with the help of family and the Union Church’s purchase of a baby grand piano, I founded WCCMA’s Summer Concert Series: an eclectic mix of genres and professional performers from local to internationally acclaimed that everyone could access with no admission required.

What has been the trajectory of the WCCMA? How has your thinking changed over the years and how is that reflected in your programming now?

We began in 2008 as a summer concert series. In the following years we expanded into education and youth outreach. Last year, we were able to supply over $100,000 in organization services for City celebrations at no cost, and we provided the community with well over $200,000 worth of cultural events with a $25,000 budget. We have had to step in and tackle the full circle of needs in the arts: resources, education, and building the creative community because Claremont is considered underserved in all of those areas. Now with several strategic partnerships we are able to leverage our very small financial resources to make a measurable difference for youth and arts professionals in particular. We are working with the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College through their Community Venture Initiative to bring the HopStop family shows to Claremont, and we have a great relationship with the City and Claremont Parks and Recreation in developing exciting new programs for Claremont. We will be able to announce details later this year about additional collaborations with the Claremont MakerSpace as well.

A young student gives a recital.

A young student gives a recital.

Arts Education was also an area of great need. One of the first changes we incorporated was adding workshops by performers. If kids don’t have access to arts at an early age, they miss out on important opportunities to expand their world. This can mean everything from lost opportunities to build new skills, to contributing to breaking the cycle of poverty. I hear very frequently from adults “I don’t understand arts/music, but I really like this.” We want people to know that there’s no knowledge required, but if they’d like to dive in further they can. I guarantee that if your mind is open you’ll appreciate much more than if you think you know music and don’t bother to try to continue to explore it.

Do you think much about the role the WCCMA plays in economic development here in the City?

I do, it’s really tied to everything we do. One of the fundamental issues we have had to work through is that it is difficult for musicians and artists to support themselves here. That means that we have a more difficult time finding local creative professionals for projects, students have a difficult time finding instructors, and the cost to run programs is higher. These difficulties stifle organic growth in the arts.

When that cycle exists, it really hurts all development. The arts draw in a tremendous amount of funding that benefits the entire economy. Restaurants and businesses benefit from people visiting the community to consume arts resources and shopping while they are here. Millennials tend not to move into communities that don’t have quality cultural resources – a significant part of a community’s “livability”, and it continues to snowball. Without younger, engaged citizens the pool of people working to better the community just continues to decline, hurting everyone.

I know you’ve read the other articles, so you know what I’m writing about. What are your feelings on the arts and gentrification/displacement? Knowing that the arts can help improve a community’s economy, how do you make things inclusive?

Gentrification can be a concern, but I think this is one area where Claremont has a benefit. Where WCCMA is concerned, all of our events are either by donations, or have financial aid available. We have programs in place to offer financial assistance for arts workshops and lessons for youth, and we help to provide students in need with instruments they can borrow for free to participate in school music. We specifically spend a huge portion of our time seeking grants so that we don’t have to set a required cost for programs.

Arni Cheatham of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.

Arni Cheatham of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.

If I speak specifically to gentrification and displacement, I think the trick is for us to continue to support our neighbors, something Claremont is known for. Earlier this year I read an article in Slate that talked about displacement and how in most cases it doesn’t cause low income people to move out at an increased rate over areas not gentrified. What it can do is make it difficult to move into a community after people move out and rent increases. I believe that if we remain vigilant we can help those families to have access to the resources they need to also grow along with the community. The ideal is to have a more diverse mix of people and demographics, not to push a narrow idea for who and what exist in the community. Again in the arts arena, if WCCMA has more support from those who can afford to pay for programs, we can prioritize a general increase in programs and support for those needing help accessing programs. We all benefit from that.

In our next article, I’m going to talk to the folks from the Claremont MakerSpace. Obviously, that group has a very different trajectory, coming into the City from out of town. I know you all are going to have a strong partnership… can you say a little about what you think that relationship will look like?

We do expect to have a strong relationship, and are very excited about the possibilities! I participate in their steering committee alongside others from Claremont, so they will be able to look at their development from many angles. WCCMA is planning to collaborate with CMS on getting more educational workshops in the creative arts into the downtown by offering them in their facility. We also have been talking about events and projects that we can work together to produce. I think that collaboration will lead to some very exciting things for the Claremont and the region. We can be much stronger when we work together with open minds and common goals. I think CMS is going to be a natural fit for Claremont’s very hands on community, and we are happy to bring our experience to the table to help them succeed as well.

Thank you very much for putting yourself and your organization out there for this. The City is lucky to have a young person who cares so much. Anything readers should know about coming up?

WCCMA's Executive Director, Melissa Richmond.

WCCMA’s Executive Director, Melissa Richmond.

Thank you Zach for digging right in to these important issues. I hope people will stop at our webpage, we have a busy year ahead. Our Annual Spring Tea and Luncheon Fundraiser is coming up on May 9th. We will be announcing our Summer Concert Series roster soon, which will include local professionals, world music, and the return of the Yankee Brass Band. Last year we presented 35 events, so I highly recommend people visit the website, Facebook, and/or contact me to join our mailing list at melissa@wcc-ma.org so they don’t miss anything!

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