Arts center left legacy for Springfield in memories
By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD -- Although the Zone Arts Center has been closed since 1996, there are still bits of evidence that it existed, such as the Zone sticker stuck on a sign near the Chestnut Street exit of Interstate 291.
Former Zone artist Bill Myers laughed when he was told the sticker is still there. "There were a lot of those," he said. Myer is now the chief preparator at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton.
What is clearly the legacy of the non-profit, multi-discipline arts center are the memories of the exhibitions, performances and music it hosed during the 16 years from1980 to 1996.
The artist whose work was at the Zone, as well as the audiences who came during that time, are invited to the Zone Art Center 30th Reunion and Benefit Celebration from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the Canal Gallery, 380 Dwight St. Holyoke. The suggested donation is $5.
At 8 p.m. there will be a concert featuring 8th Route Army, The Malarians, Bamboo Steamers, Art Kritics, Donut Kings and Thrillpillow. Admission will be $10 for the concert.
Larry Slezak, former chair of the department of visual and performing arts at Springfield Technical Community College, was one of the founders of Zone. He said it was "the by-product of a lot of young artists moving in and around Springfield."
"We felt there was a missing piece downtown for gallery space, performing space," Slezak explained.
He said a group of artists took "six months hashing out ideas" for a space and an organization to operate it.
Two supporters helped make the Zone a reality for them, Slezak said. One was Sam Plotkin, who made the large second floor of 395 Dwight St. available rent-free, with heat supplied, for two years. The other was Springfield Central Executive Director Carlo Marchetti, described as "a champion of the arts."
With their help, Zone "kind of jelled for a dozen or so of us. It became a serious exercise," Slezak said.
"It just kind of evolved," he added.
Myers said that both Mayors Richard Neal and Ted Dimauro were supportive of Zone.
Over its lifetime, Zone became well know for its art exhibits, activities such as live jazz music brunches and musical performances. It was also known as an alcohol and drug-free environment, with many events suitable for all ages.
The space was large enough for theatrical productions as well and a very wide range of art was featured at Zone. Reminder Publications graphic artist Elizabeth O'Donoghue was a board member at Zone and had her own work exhibited there. In her collection of posters from the arts center one can see the breadth of the work there - from photography to a 1989 video festival to music.
The arts center featured everything from self-described big bands to Caribbean music to cutting edge rock and roll.
Myers called Zone "the CGBG of Western Massachusetts" -- a reference to the legendary punk and alternative music club in New York City. Among the bands that appeared there were Dinosaur Junior, The Lyres, the Sighs and Pajama Slave Dancers.
With one paid position -- a director -- Zone relied on volunteers and Slezak and Myers, both of whom had moved on to other activities by the time Zone closed in 1996, said such an enterprise can burn out people.
Could Springfield support an arts center like Zone today? Slezak said, "There's always a need for something. What's missing is a core group of artists."
Although he acknowledged the success of the artist studio complex at Indian Orchard Mills and the growing programming offered by the Bing Arts Center, Slezak said what is needed for a new Zone would be what the original one had: "a core group [with] na ve, youthful energy that propelled it forward."
Gina Beavers, director of the Springfield Business Improvement District's (BID) artistic initiative, was not living in Springfield when Zone was open, but she had certainly heard of it and believes re-establishing an art space downtown is certainly a possibility. She said the BID is now encouraging artists to consider studio space at a building on Apremont Triangle off Chestnut Street.
Perhaps the greatest legacy left by Zone is that it attracted artists to Springfield, giving it an arts community one normally assigned to Northampton.
"There was a pulse in the city at that time, "Myers said.
O'Donoghue said she was unclear of her path as an artist and Zone helped her stay in Springfield and build a career.
"I grew up at Zone," she said. "It was the best community I had been part of to that point.
Myers said the reaction to the reunion has been heartening.
He added some people are coming from as far away as California to attend it.
"No one said 'no' to me,' he said. "People came out of the woodwork to come to this thing.
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