By Saliha Bayrak
An imposing but empty brick building stands on the western side of Malden — abandoned after being deemed unfit to serve its original purpose as a courthouse. Now, city officials hope to turn the nearly 100-year-old building into a center that would house Malden’s lively arts and culture scene.
The city of Malden is aiming to purchase the former Malden District Court building and transform it into what would be known as the Malden Center for Arts & Culture. Members of local government and Malden artists say that a center dedicated to arts and culture would be a much-needed benefit to the city.
“We knew that there was this kind of nebulous cluster of artists that just needed a point to coalesce around. And that’s why we’ve been looking for an art center,” said Kevin Duffy, Malden strategy and business development officer.
The idea was initiated by Mayor Gary Christenson; Duffy is playing a critical role in the first stages of this initiative — acquiring the building. Duffy worked with Christenson to draft legislation presenting a proposal to buy the structure, which has been reviewed and approved by the judiciary.
The city is now awaiting approval by the Department of Capital Asset Management, which currently has the rights to the building, and an appraisal to determine the cost of the building. Ideally, the city will be able to acquire the building at an affordable price before proceeding with the process to transform it into a hub for arts and culture.
“There are four goals and I’m working on the first goal, which is the successful conveyance of the building to the city at a price we can afford,” said Duffy.
Duffy explained that the building is no longer being used as a courthouse due to issues related to the heating ventilation and air-conditioning system and the interior design, which was not in line with the needs of a modern courthouse. The city leaped at the possibility of repurposing it.
He envisions that the Malden Center of Arts and Culture will become a magnet for the city, a vehicle to create a lively Malden center, and support for the surrounding businesses.
“My goal for that is that it becomes an economic driver for that corner of the square, which helps integrate it into the city,” said Duffy. “By putting in an arts center, you now have a destination, which will pull people that way, because now they’re going for a show. And it’s a complementary activity. So now it’s a show and a dinner.”
The second goal of the initiative, as described by Duffy, is to assess the needs and desires of the community to decide what kind of programming and space the building will provide.
The recently formed committee that will oversee this goal is headed by Evan Spetrini, senior planner for the Malden Redevelopment Authority, and Amanda Linehan, city councillor representing Ward Three, where the building is located.
They will be working on a preliminary use plan which “recommends the type of experiences offered to potential tenants and other users that will support the programs…as well as the target audience,” said Duffy.
The committee has begun discussion around a possible focus through a “robust community engagement process,” as described by Councillor Linehan.
“We spent the last few weeks reaching out to try to build a really diverse coalition of folks that can be on that initial steering committee or advisory group representing different voices in the city,” said Linehan “So we first and foremost want to make sure that it’s diverse by race, income, ethnicity, background, neighborhood, anything that we can bring to the table that is representative of the city’s demographics.”
“Next, we’re looking for a breadth of artistic backgrounds,” she added.
In the future, the committee also plans to research exemplary buildings, explore funding options, and work with an architect to discuss the physicality of the building.
Linehan believes that an arts and culture space can make the area “so much more livable, and vibrant” and “a beautiful thing to walk by… something that almost anyone can enjoy.”
However, community feedback is necessary in the process of making that a reality.
“I’ve heard from more residents on this issue than anything else ever. Full stop. This has more people excited than I ever would have imagined,” said Linehan.
She hopes constituents she usually does not hear from will also offer their feedback.
Councillor Linehan is not alone in her excitement for the initiative. Stephen Winslow, a City Councillor at large for Malden, believes an arts and culture center would be a great addition to the city’s existing artist community.
“Malden has a great artistic path. And we have a great arts and cultural community right now. And this will only help ensure that that continues in the future,” said Winslow.
Mark Linehan, the co-chair for the Malden Cultural Council, and husband of Amanda Linehan, is also optimistic about the initiative. Although the cultural council currently has no official role in the planning process, he hopes that they can be of aid in reaching out to the artist community and planning events for the space in the future.
“The most important thing with this process is going to be public engagement,” said Mark Linehan. “We need to make sure that we’re reaching out to new voices as well and making sure that every person in every group that enriches Malden is heard equally.”
He urges members of the community to reach out to the Malden Cultural Council or a city council member to voice their interests, needs, and vision for the building.
There is a discussion about the many ways that the spacious building could be utilized, such as performance venues, gallery spaces, and a new studio for Urban Media Arts (formerly MATV), among many others. Artists in the community offer their own vision for the space.
Lisa L. Sears, a Malden visual artist, is elated to hear about a potential space in which she and other artists could create and display their art.
“I think Malden definitely needs…a cultural center where one can go and expect to see some sort of art or have an interaction with artists, actors, musicians in some personal way,” said Sears.
Sears hopes that the center would have space for performances, art galleries, and workshops, and overall a “dedicated space where art is respected” and has “a feeling of energy,” she said.
Jennifer Kuhnberg, the founder and director of the Onstage Dance Company, is especially elated about the initiative since her ability to practice her art form has suffered due to COVID-19.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve had to close the location to the public and have been having to switch to virtual events,” said Kuhnberg. “So when things are able to open again, to have a dedicated space that could be used for dance will be really crucial, especially considering how hard hit the arts organizations have been in the past year.”
Many tasks remain to materialize this idea into a reality — after the building acquired by the city and community feedback is assessed, the building plan and budget must also be put together. The initiative is in its very early stages and the building would likely not be open for programming for several years.
“It’s probably going to be towards the end of the year that we actually take possession of the building,” said Duffy. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s you know the holiday time of 2022 or even the first quarter of 2023 that we actually start having programs in there.”