Note to readers: today, I’m introducing a new interview series on Createquity. Every so often, I’m going to conduct some email correspondence with interesting folks who you (probably) haven’t heard of about issues pertaining to this blog, and share the results with everyone here. Since this is a new feature, please do let me know how it’s going with a comment or a private message. I’m interested in any and all feedback you may have.
I met Helena Fruscio when she spoke on a panel at the Connecting New England’s Creative Communities conference in Providence this past March that was about looking “beyond our borders” for productive collaborations. I was impressed with the innovative range of programs offered by Berkshire Creative as well as its unique (as far as I know) role as a local council for the creative economy, not just the arts or culture. Helena’s career path is equally notable: she is Berkshire Creative’s director and has evolved the position from internship in summer 2007 in the fledging organization to the paid position of Program Coordinator in late 2007, to the Director of Operations in 2008, to finally leading the organization as she does today.
In 2008, Helena was appointed to the Massachusetts Creative Economy Council by Governor Deval Patrick. She is the Chair of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce’s Fine and Performing Arts Award, she sits on Berkshire Navigation-Berkshire Data Collection Steering committee, Berkshire Blueprint Steering Committee, and is an active steering committee member of the Berkshire Young Professionals. Helena received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) School of Imaging Arts and Sciences in Ceramic Sculpture, with a concentration in Anthropology/Sociology.
Can you tell us about how you came to be the founding director of Berkshire Creative? What was the initiative that led to its formation and how did you first become involved?
The idea for the Berkshire Creative Economy Council (Berkshire Creative) was first conceived in 2006 by the brilliant and driven Director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Laurie Norton Moffatt, and the President of the Hancock Shaker Village, Ellen Spear. They happened to be sitting side by side at a meeting about a countywide economic development plan for the Berkshires. They realized their organizations and similar creative businesses needed to have a unified voice around their economic impact and the role creativity plays in Berkshire County.
Fast-forward to March 2007: A steering committee of 45 creative business owners and non-profit directors was formed, a grant from Massachusetts Technology Collaborative was received and the Berkshire Creative Economy Report produced by Mt. Auburn Associates had been unveiled. This report outlined the creative economy as one of the top industries in Berkshire County with over 6,000 jobs and millions being generated.
In the meantime, I was oblivious to these developments, as I worked on my Bachelors of Fine Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. My major was Ceramic Sculpture, yes that is a major, and I was happily working on my senior thesis show. I was uncertain of my post-graduation plans when I stumbled across the Berkshire Hills Internship Program (BHIP) offered through the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in my hometown of North Adams, Massachusetts.
Three days after I graduated, I became the first intern of the fledgling Berkshire Creative, which was still a loose affiliation of the amazing Steering Committee that created The Report. It was at this critical juncture that Berkshire Creative was provided with a Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) Adams matching grant. The Adams grant provided the fiscal support and leverage necessary for Berkshire Creative to make its pivotal transition from a steering committee of invested community members to an organization with a highly committed board and a staff of one: me.
Today, I am the Director of Berkshire Creative and with the help of a highly committed Board of Directors and volunteers, we work to execute our mission to stimulate and support job growth and economic opportunity in the Berkshire County region by sparking innovative collaborations between artists, designers, cultural institutions, and businesses.
Let’s talk about the creative economy. As you know, most of the discussions we tend to have about “the arts” in this country tend to focus on the nonprofit sector primarily or exclusively. What do you see as the most important synergies or connections between nonprofit arts organizations and local creative industries?
We define our work as a movement: “A movement that came into being at the intersection of art, innovation, design and creation. It’s a big concept to grasp all at once, encompassing the collaboration between disparate groups in a dynamic new direction that is uniquely Berkshire. One line sums it up better than anything else: Creativity means Business in the Berkshires.”
The driving values of the creative workers and businesses we serve are inherently different from many other industry clusters. What propels those we serve to chose to their respective fields is not purely financial, but a passion for their creative product and/or service. For many of these businesses and organizations, the generation and promotion of their product or service is their priority. They want to find better ways of making a living off of what they love to do, and we exist to help them do that. This unique value set gives a distinct slant to the purposes of connecting, networking, customer relations, and product development.
At the end of the day a creative business or organization is still a business and has to be treated as such, but it takes a certain organization to support these business owners and their business perspective.
Another component of our creative economy work is a new argument for “the arts” that turns old assumptions on their heads. Often times when we speak of “the arts” and “supporting the arts” it gives the sense of struggling artists or cultural institutions looking for donations. In other words, the organizations and individuals are “taking” something from the community, usually money, and giving art in return. By changing the “the arts” argument to the “Creative Economy”, the inherent message conveys that art organizations and creative businesses have an impact on the economy. It focuses on what the businesses and organizations give to the community and not receive from it. It makes them a “sector” of the economy, with a strong impact, not just people with their hands out. The “Creative Economy” says that art jobs are real jobs too, that donors or patrons are still spending real money, that a struggling artist contributes to the “movement” of the economy, that all businesses centered around creativity have a place in the county’s plan and that the creative organizations and businesses are seen by economic developers and that their needs are met by business support organizations.
With this sector it seems contrary to progress to keep old divisions intact as we move forward to develop strength as a single industry. We can and should recognize the different business needs of a non-profit, a for-profit and a sole proprietor, but our power is in numbers and in speaking with one voice. Not to mention that it continually amazes me what happens when you get a group of creative people into one room. You can almost feel the sparks flying and you never know what is going to evolve. To keep the creative leadership separate because of their incorporation status just does not make sense in the new economy.
What is your definition of the “creative economy”? How do you decide what’s in and what’s out?
Berkshire Creative serves the community of Berkshire-based individuals and businesses ranging from museums, historic homes, performing art centers, and theater companies to designers, architects, artists, technology companies, and manufacturers who each contribute to the distinctly creative and innovative nature of the region.
I have people ask me all the time, “I am a creative lawyer or plumber, am I part of the Creative Economy?” The answer is no. Not all jobs are part of the creative economy, even if the people working in them are creative.
We define the creative sector as: “The enterprises and people involved in the production and distribution of goods and services in which the aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional engagement of the consumer gives the product value in the marketplace.”
Unfortunately, at the time this definition was established the industry and job coding used by government agencies did not yet fully quantify these segments as a whole sector. Fortunately, the New England Foundation for the Arts released a report shortly after the Berkshire Creative Economy Report which outlined the industry and job codes that fall within the creative sector. We use these codes to help further our definition and measure our creative industries.
Berkshire Creative recently announced a collaboration with the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Economic Development Corporation, and the Berkshire Visitors Bureau focused on aligning the four organizations’ approaches to regional economic development. It’s quite rare for the creative community to be invited to the table for these conversations so explicitly. What do you feel are the most important factors that made this possible in the Berkshires and what lessons do you see for other communities looking to form the same kinds of partnerships?
In the Berkshires we realize the need for collaboration and a unified front for economic development and business support. Things are changing around the world, as well as here in Berkshire County and forward-thinking regions are positioning themselves NOW to be leaders in the new economy. 1Berkshire leverages the strengths, capabilities and resources of the four organizations involved, while positioning the Berkshires as a whole to thrive.
For the creative industry to be invited to the top economic development tables in other regions, the creative industry must be organized with a succinct and unified message. Let’s face it, classic business development and support organizations can have a hard time wrapping their heads around this industry. It is our job to be clear and cohesive about its importance within every city, region, and state’s economic development plan.
Again this is where the argument for the support of the “creative economy” versus “the arts” carries more weight at economic development tables. The act of assembling and supporting and then communicating and advocating for the creative industry is the foundation for being included in the economic development conversation.
So it sounds like just bringing people together is the most important first step. Can you describe some interesting interactions you’ve observed at your events or unusual connections that have been made through Berkshire Creative that wouldn’t have been possible if the focus were just on “the arts” rather than the “creative economy”?
My favorite story of inter-sector collaboration comes from the beginnings of our organization. It centers around two of our founding Steering Committee members, Bill Hines, Jr. of Interprint Inc. and Ellen Spear of Hancock Shaker Village. For years they had operated their respective organizations just a stone’s throw from each other in Pittsfield: Hancock Shaker Village, a National Historic Landmark, and Interprint, a leading decor printer and designer of laminate flooring. Even though these two organizations were less than a mile apart, it was not until Bill and Ellen met under the auspices of Berkshire Creative that they considered that there might be synergy between the for-profit manufacturer and non-profit museum.
Working on the launch of Berkshire Creative gave Bill and Ellen the opportunity to discuss their respective needs and resources, which ultimately resulted in a new line of Interprint designed laminate layer inspired by the floors of Hancock Shaker Village. This is a perfect example of how breaking down the barriers between non-profit and for-profit results in innovative collaborations that are beneficial both socially and monetarily. This is the creative economy at its best!
That was one of our earliest connections, but smaller and equally important connections are made at our events and through our website regularly. Connections that lead to hiring new employees, collaborations that lead to new product lines, and cross county colleagues meeting for the first time.
As an emerging leader in the charge of a very new organization, what challenges have you faced and lessons have you learned that might be helpful to your peers assuming significant responsibility in an organization for the first time?
I began working with Berkshire Creative as an intern three days after I graduated from college. I had no prior ‘professional’ experience and since Berkshire Creative was about as new as I was, what I was getting into was not yet fully defined. I didn’t know how the “business world” worked, only how to work hard and get things done with the end goal in mind. In some ways this lack of experience has been beneficial, a newcomer working to develop a new field. I had no preconceived notions about the way things worked or about myself. At the time I was quite aware that I knew very little, so I asked for help and asked a lot of questions.
Which leads me to, in my opinion, the most important strategy for a young leader: ask for help and advice from people with more experience than you. The phrases “can you advise me?” or “can I ask you a question?” are my most valued professional development tools. It is not about knowing everything; it is about knowing whom to ask and leveraging the resources and brain trust around you. Be a sponge.
For example, when I began with Berkshire Creative I did not know how to make a budget. I did not even know what a budget was! So I tapped into the resources around me and engaged a board member with financial expertise to lead me though the budgeting process.
Surrounding yourself with strong mentors is important. I remember one moment from my earliest days with the organization. I was in the office of Berkshire Creative co-founder and Norman Rockwell Museum Director, Laurie Norton Moffatt, calling local officials to invite them to a press event for the launch of the Berkshire Creative Economy Report. After I hung up from a call, Laurie said to me, “Helena, make sure that at the end of your sentences your voice goes down instead of up. As women it is important that we don’t sound like we are asking a question or are undecided in our statements.”
I have been fortunate to have amazing and generous local business leaders mentor me as I evolved into the role of Director, including Board Co-Chairs Nancy Fitzpatrick of The Red Lion Inn, Kevin Sprague of Studio Two, and the other Berkshire Creative Board Members. They have continually supported me, with incredible generosity of insights, energy and time. We developed the work of Berkshire together as a creative community and I am thankful to have the opportunity to work with such inspired, intelligent, giving, and creative individuals.