A Future Narrative Arts Center in Boston: Part I

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By Jessica A. Kent

On March 26, GrubStreet announced they were making a bid as finalists for the location at 50 Liberty Wharf in the Seaport, to create what they’re calling a Narrative Arts Center, in partnership with Harvard Book Store and Mass Poetry. The Center, a 13,000-square-foot space on the Boston waterfront, would be the future headquarters of GrubStreet and its multitude of writing classes, but would also feature a bookstore and cafe/wine bar, and a 200+ person major event space. According to their vision statement, they desire to create a third space full of books, community, and imagination, one that people walking by will observe: readings and book launch parties, slam poetry, community discussions, and an Espresso Book Machine creating books on-demand. They are one of four finalists for the space, which will be leased to a cultural organization for $1 a year.

And space is certainly needed. Boston doesn’t have a large event space dedicated solely to literary events. The literary events in the area tend to be hosted at our local bookstores, where space is tight, and often displays and sometimes entire bookcases are moved to make room for chairs. Often it’s enough, but sometimes it’s not. When there are bigger literary headliners, the events are held at bigger venues, but none that are affiliated with the literary community (think a rented Brattle Theatre). A dedicated space devoted solely to readings, talks, and literary events would be valuable.

But it’s not just about a nice bookstore, or an event stage. At the core of GrubStreet’s twenty-one years as a writing organization is their belief that everyone has a story to tell - and that age, race, income, or orientation shouldn’t be a hindrance: "We believe that narrative transforms lives, builds bridges, and produces empathy. By rigorously developing voices of every type and talent and by removing barriers to entry, GrubStreet fosters the creation of meaningful stories and ensures that excellent writing remains vital and relevant.” They talk the talk, and walk the walk. GrubStreet provides hundreds of writing classes, from one-day workshops to year-long incubators. They’ve brought classes into underserved Boston neighborhoods, and provide classes in multiple languages. They provide scholarships for those who might not be able to afford the programming. They have robust teen programming, engaging students of color and from low-income backgrounds. Additionally, their staff is almost half people of color.

From their vision statement for the Center: "The participants will be as diverse as the city’s neighborhoods themselves, as GrubStreet draws on our current work in teaching teens and adults across greater Boston to bring a multi-racial audience. We are committed to removing barriers to participation and will continue to work to ensure access, especially for communities that have been marginalized.”

The location in the Seaport provides significant opportunity, yet maybe some hidden challenges. The Seaport, which was essentially empty lots punctuated by Anthony’s Pier 4 and the fish pier only twenty years ago, has exploded into a hotspot for company headquarters, restaurants, conventions, hotels, luxury condos, and more. A “created neighborhood,” the main critique about the Seaport has been its significant lack of diversity. GrubStreet, with its mission of inclusive arts programming, may be just the thing the Seaport needs in its midst. The city of Boston, by choosing the Narrative Arts Center for the 50 Liberty space, would be taking a step forwards towards bringing inclusion, at least in a small part, to the neighborhood. Boston would also be signaling its commitment to the arts by bringing the Narrative Arts Center to the most up-and-coming neighborhood in the city. We’ve already seen the ICA’s success in the Seaport, and the Lawn on D’s appeal.

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On April 30, GrubStreet presented at District Hall in Seaport, along with the other four finalist organizations, before a packed (think standing room only, three feet deep) room. Eve Bridburg, the founder and executive director of GrubStreet, told the story of the organizations iteration, and of that first workshop every held. Along with Regie Gibson (who did a little performed poetry about the Narrative Arts space itself) and Augusta Meill, Bridburg presented their vision, a visual of what the space would look like, and the financial plan for how they'd accomplish it. GrubStreet has already been earmarked a $2 million grant from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation if the Narrative Arts Center goes through.

But the verdict is still out. A decision will be made sometime this summer - we'll keep you updated, and hope to bring you a Part II to this article! In the meantime, head over to GrubStreet's Narrative Arts Center page for ways to make your voice heard.