By Emily Corbett
One of the factors that draw many of us to Portsmouth and the Seacoast region is the access to a robust art and music scene afforded by the intimacy of small city. While enjoying the many local cultural offerings, it’s easy to forget the incredible amount of both passion and labor required to cultivate and support an active arts community. Part of the impetus behind our Friday Morning Coffee Conversations was to make space to catch up with and learn more about community members who have helped build and shape the creative identity of Portsmouth, so we were especially excited to sit down with Russ Grazier, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (more affectionately known as PMAC).
Though Russ is a Portsmouth native, it was fate (or more accurately really good timing and a lot of hard work) that brought him back to our city to stay. After studying, teaching and working in large cities including Boston, Baltimore and Chicago, Russ was looking for a place that would both provide a nurturing environment for his young family and support his dream of opening a community music school. While trying to decide on his next move, Russ came home to Portsmouth for a visit and happened across a piece in the paper about a local cultural committee that had identified the need for an independent music and arts center. That was just the cue Russ needed and working together with his wife Katie and his high school choral director, he put together a business plan and made it happen. After several years of traveling to teaching gigs around New England to pay the bills as the fledgling school got off the ground, Russ was able to finally transition to PMAC full time. Now, fourteen years after its founding, the school is an established and recognized anchor of the community and able to fulfill its admirable mission: To build community through the arts by providing all people with the opportunity to achieve their full creative potential, regardless of their age, ability, or economic status.
Exposing a wider segment of the local population to broader and deeper experiences of music and art in turn creates a more sophisticated and curious local audience. Russ noted that in his opinion higher caliber musicians are choosing not only to play in Portsmouth but also stay and live in the area. He recalled going out in Portsmouth when he was younger and having four or five venue choices mostly featuring rock cover bands. He spoke about the importance of venues like 3S Artspace, which have a lot of potential to support both touring acts and local music. Now he feels like you can go out in Portsmouth regularly and hear original music. “There are some young bands in this area that I know would not exist in this area if they hadn’t gone through our program and worked with our teachers. “ He excitedly spoke of the jazz ensemble ‘Time Planet’ comprised of local teens and twenty-somethings who studied at PMAC. They just released an album of original music and come back to Portsmouth to play together with a repertoire that spans from standards to new ‘far out stuff’.
We can imagine this feels like an incredible type of Return on Investment. It is often a frustrating process for those in creative fields to get others to push their own boundaries and try something new and unfamiliar to them, but Russ and his colleagues’ dedication to their work at PMAC shows the slow but fruitful ripple effect that education can have on creating a more diverse, exciting and culturally rich community. It is inspiring to see that an investment in education can yield this kind of dividends. We have a similar desire for more expansive conversation around design. We aspire to contribute towards and influence the understanding of our local built environment through our practice.
Two years ago, PMAC moved into a new facility in the West End that was fit out specifically for them. The goal was to simultaneously create spaces with the sound isolation needed for practicing music while also encouraging openness and collaboration. ‘People collaborate a lot in the space because of the way it’s laid out… opening up that main gallery, keeping the doors open when there’s not a class in there… sometimes [the teachers] don’t like practicing in their little studios, they like to go into the gallery and practice. Allowing them to do that has kind of fostered a lot of collaboration, sometimes they’ll just go in and improvise together.” Russ was quick to point out that the design is still only a piece of the puzzle, and that part of the collaborative spirit at PMAC comes from the organization’s philosophy of trust and respect for each other. He sees his colleagues coming together through daily interactions at the school, which can lead to projects like an album that was recorded last year by a PMAC faculty group for the RPM Challenge.
Russ also sees a lot of promise for PMAC’s home in the West End. “I would love for it to feel like a destination… Instead of hanging out in Market Square on the weekend, you go down to the West End and hangout there on the weekend. I think it has the potential to do something like that”. He recognizes that a lot hinges on several key projects, including the nearby Frank Jones brewery complex. If those projects are done well, it could be the needed catalyst for the area, but if it is ‘just another condo building’ that opportunity may be lost. Likewise the city could make some needed changes toward the walkability of the area like sidewalk improvements and clearer intersection exchanges, but the city is still reliant on a lot of private property owners to enable a larger transformation of the West End. Russ is concerned about the safety of the kids walking to their activities at PMAC, but also the parking and traffic impact on PMAC employees, who largely live outside of Portsmouth due to the high cost of housing here. This speaks to the irony facing Portsmouth and many other urban areas, where the generators of the creative culture that draw people to the city are being priced out by the popularity and subsequent high cost of living in the city.
We love the work that Russ and PMAC are taking on and greatly appreciate being able to reap the benefits of having this resource in our community. Russ, thanks for taking some time out of your day to collaborate and improvise with us!