A cultural arts center pivots in order to survive

Saint James Place opens doors for socially distanced meetings, events

A view of the Sanctuary from the stage. Berkshire Eagle File Photo

By Jennifer Huberdeau
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.

In a normal year, the Sanctuary of Saint James Place is filled with sounds of jazz, chamber music and opera; of dancers on the stage, of actors mid-soliloquy; of hushed audiences erupting with applause.

But, 2020 wasn’t a normal year, and the Sanctuary mostly was silent because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. That hasn’t stopped the cultural center’s staff and board members from finding ways to continue meeting the community’s needs.

“Since reopening in October, we’ve opened our public event spaces up to the community for socially distanced indoor meeting space,” said Seth Keyes, general manager, during a recent visit to the former church at Main Street and Taconic Avenue.

The cultural center boasts three performance/event spaces that, he said, have ample space to host meetings for groups and organizations that have been meeting outside during the summer or over Zoom.

“Many people are wondering how they are going to meet during the winter or are suffering from Zoom fatigue and would like to meet in person, in a safe and socially distant manner,” Keyes said.

Saint James Place can offer that much-needed space, he said.

The 3,400-square-foot Sanctuary, which typically seats 258 on its ground level and 30 in the balcony, can, under Massachusetts COVID-19 safety regulations, host 104 individuals. The Great Hall, at 1,140 square feet, can currently accommodate 24, while the East Room, at 700 square feet, is available for meetings of up to 12 people.

Saint James Place in Great Barrington, Mass., is a cultural arts center located in a restored 19th-century Gothic Revival church. Photo provided by Saint James Place

“When COVID-19 hit, the performance spaces dried up,” said Fred Harris, co-founder and board treasurer, noting that the center’s partner organizations have begun to trickle back in to record live broadcasts from the acoustical spaces.

In addition to the performance spaces, Saint James Place is home to The People’s Pantry, a community food pantry, and rents office space to several arts organizations, including the Berkshire Opera Festival, Flying Cloud Institute, Great Barrington Public Theater and Gallery315Home. It also hosts the Great Barrington Arts Market and, in 2019, was the performance venue for Festival Latino of the Berkshires.

“2020 was supposed to be a year of celebration for us,” said Sally Harris, co-founder and board president. “It was the 10th anniversary of our incorporation of Saint James Place. We spent our first five years fundraising, getting grants and permits, working with architects and theater consultants.

“We were really hoping to have a celebration. We’d had a really great year [in 2019], with a lot of momentum, and had a new organization come in. We were really excited to host Festival Latino’s performances. The Sanctuary stage was such a beautiful setting to show them off.”

Creating a cultural center

Sally and Fred Harris, co-founders of Saint James Place. Berkshire Eagle File Photo

The Harrises became involved in the efforts to save the former Saint James Church in 2010.
“We weren’t looking to do this,” Fred said. “This was going to be torn down.”

At the time, the couple, who have been married for 26 years, lived in New York and came to the Berkshires on weekends. Sally, who has had a house in the Berkshires since 1974, has been a member of the St. James Episcopal Church congregation for 34 years, (St. James Church is now part of Grace Church, an Episcopal community in the Southern Berkshires.)
The Harrises became full-time Great Barrington residents in 2012.

“This was our church,” Sally said.

In 2008, the rear facade of the building experienced a partial collapse, which resulted in the church being condemned.

“There were only 75 people in the parish at that time,” Fred said, noting how the structural repairs far exceeded the parish’s finances.

The Harrises could not let the building — it’s a significant example of 19th-century Gothic Revival architecture and a significant part of the community — be torn down. In 2010, they formed the nonprofit Saint James Place to purchase the church and parish house.

“The idea of this building being torn down was very distressing to the people in town,” he said.

A Crescendo performance in the Sanctuary.

With support from entities such as Partners for Sacred Places, which led an arts market study, the Harrises secured $500,000 in Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits for repairs to the now-163-year-old building. In 2013, Saint James Place received $500,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for the restoration work, and an additional $247,000 for the purchase and installation of integrated lighting, sound and video equipment.

While the transformation of the space, from a church to a state-of-the-art performance center took longer than anticipated — challenges arose as restoration work moved along, creating more items to repair and restore — Saint James Place opened to the public in 2017.

Saint James Place typically hosts the Great Barrington Arts Market in its Great Hall.

The venue’s hard spaces, Fred said, lend themselves perfectly for acoustic performances.

And that has led many arts and cultural organizations to use the performance spaces, Sally said. Together, the Harrises ticked off numerous groups, including Berkshires Jazz, Jazz and Classics for Change, Aston Magna Music Festival, Crescendo, Close Encounters with Music, Berkshire Lyric and Olga Dunn Dance, among others, that have held events there.

Saint James Place also has hosted events for the Berkshire Taconic Community Fund and the Schumacher Center for New Economics; graduation ceremonies for the John Dewey Academy, and many private weddings.

“Thank God COVID-19 didn’t happen when we first opened. We were able to prove this space could work as a performing arts center,” Fred said. “We’ve been able to hold the fort down during COVID-19. We haven’t had to let anyone go, although, we have had to restrict the hours we work.”

Keyes added: “The hardest part of all this is to lose our momentum, especially as a venue for weddings. It hurts not to have it open, but we’ll be here when everybody is ready. ”
For more information on socially distanced meetings and events or micro-wedding celebrations, visit saintjamesplace.net.

Olga Dunn Dance Company members perform onstage in the Sanctuary. Photos provided by Saint James Place

Jennifer Huberdeau is editor of UpCountry magazine. She also pens the column “Mysteries from the Morgue” for The Berkshire Eagle.

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