Sunday, June 21, 2020

Interview with Somerville's Stephanie Scherpf, Executive Director of the Center for Arts at the Armory

I was lucky to catch up with Stephanie Scherpf, the director of the Center for Arts at the Armory on Highland in Somerville. I have attended many events there, ranging from theatre, music, and poetry. A good friend of mine Gloria Mindock, founder of the Cervena Barva Press has a small studio there where she sells books, conducts workshops, and hosts readings. Timothy Gager and I held some of our Somerville News Writers Festival events there a decade ago. It has been a vibrant center for the arts, here--in the--Paris of New England--for years now.

How has the armory adjusted to the new social distancing culture?

COVID-19 has impacted the Center for Arts at the Armory in every way. Events in our main hall and Cafe came to a halt as of March 13, 2020. Our Cafe stopped operating and we had to furlough event and Cafe staff. Administrative staff have been working from home during this period. Only our Operations Manager, Joe Botsch, goes into the building on a regular basis. Our Board has taken up weekly Zoom meetings and we also conduct staff meetings either by phone or video chat. There are a few other tenants in the Armory building who have continued to use their spaces during this period but many have remained closed. Admittedly the current situation is challenging for us as social distancing is the antithesis of what the Armory is all about as an inclusive and accessible public space for people to commune through the arts, culture and community. Donation to Arts at the Armory can be made here:

On your website you have a statement about the killing of George Floyd. What role does the arts have in fighting racism?

The Arts have the power to illuminate social justice issues, to make visible the invisible, to communicate our stories and to bring diverse peoples together to reflect on shared concerns about race, culture, identity, equity and justice. The Arts are also our hope, our weapon and our medicine. The type of arts, cultural and community programming found at the Armory promotes an exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture in order to foster understanding, admiration and support. This type of programming can combat racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-immigrant hostility and xenophobia, and ultimately build a sense of global community by giving voice to diverse artistic and cultural expression.

What programs have you recently presented? Do you find Zoom an adequate medium for presentation?

So far we presented “Saturday at the Armory” on May 30th from 10-5pm, which was a free event livestreamed on Instagram. The concept behind this was to feature programming that one might find on a typical Saturday at the Armory. A lot of the presenters were part of groups that use our Cafe space for events--like New England Poetry Club and Somerville Songwriter Sessions.  

We’re also getting ready to do a virtual fundraising gala on July 30th. 

So far we have only used Zoom for our internal meetings. 

Have you opened the physical space at the Armory yet?

We are planning to open our Cafe back up in early-mid July. We are rebooting with a new concept--ROOTED: Armory Cafe & Farmstand. ROOTED will build on relationships we have with local farms and vendors that participate in our Somerville Winter Farmers Market. Our mission will be to source locally as much as possible, supporting our local farms and businesses and also providing our community with access to farm fresh produce and gourmet grocery products. We will also accept SNAP (food stamps) payments and offer outdoor seating for up to 20 people in accordance with our zoning. ROOTED will offer a new menu, initially available for takeout and online ordering, featuring our locally sourced products. 

Opening up the main hall is more complex. First Somerville needs to reach Phase 3 of MA’s Reopening Plan. Then we need to see what’s possible to do inside the hall in such a way that follows guidelines and is also financially viable. We provide the space--we don’t host our own events so it will be a question of whether or not the groups and individuals who book us think it is worth it to do an in-person event and run the risk of whether or not people will feel comfortable enough to attend. 

Do you think your mission statement has changed?

Interesting question! I started in my role in September. A few months in, I realized that our operative mission statement does not adequately represent what we do. Thus I have proposed the following mission statement, which needs to be adopted by our Board, ideally through some type of strategic planning process: The mission of Arts at the Armory is to provide free and affordably-priced space for arts, cultural and community events and programming, and thereby bring diverse audiences together, enrich and transform lives, and promote the creative economy. I don’t think that mission statement has changed because of COVID-19. We remain committed to being able to reopen when it is safe to do so as an accessible space for arts, cultural and community events and programming, and to bringing diverse audiences together, enriching and transforming lives, and promoting the creative economy. ROOTED is focused more on the community and creative economy aspects of our mission, and it will allow us to generate much-needed revenue so that we can operate in the short-term.

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