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Local Luminary: Megan Whilden 

click to enlarge Megan Whilden
  • Megan Whilden

When Megan Whilden was appointed Pittsfield’s first director of cultural development in 2005, the Berkshire city was the ugly duckling of the county’s cultural landscape. Tourist dollars streamed north and south, but Pittsfield itself, the Berkshire county seat and once the industrial hub, was a place people drove through on their way from Great Barrington and Stockbride to Williamstown and North Adams. That’s all changing now, thanks in part to Whilden’s indefatigable advocacy for the city. In the two years she’s been Pittsfield’s culture czar, the Colonial Theater has opened, the Barrington Stage Company moved to town, galleries and restaurants have sprung up in the once moribund downtown, and, most recently, Third Thursday was launched, showcasing local artists in an evening-long celebration. In short, a cultural dynamism seems suddenly to have washed away two decades of pessimism, and the future looks bright. A former magazine editor and marketing director, Whilden is a fifth-generation native of Monterey, California, where her mother is a Zen priest and her deceased father was an attorney for Native Americans. Before relocating to the Berkshires in 2000, she lived in New York City, where she was associate publisher with the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition.

                                                                                                                    —Timothy Cahill

What surprises you most about the Berkshires?

There are so many interesting people, creative people, and great characters here. People-wise it is very rich. Berkshire County and Pittsfield are also so human-scaled that people can be and are very engaged in civic life; the county as a whole has about 142,000 people and Pittsfield has 45,000. Only two of the towns are large enough to have mayors, Pittsfield and North Adams, and the rest are governed by annual town meetings where everyone who shows up has a vote. I have never been so involved and so connected to a community as I have here in Pittsfield and the Berkshires.

What is your favorite arts venue?

You’re trying to get me in trouble! I have thought about this and the answer that comes to mind is the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, where my office is. Maybe it’s because I am there every day, and I love the variety of people that come through the door, and the immediacy and accessibility of the space. When I first started in this position, my office was in City Hall, and not that accessible. It was great to be there to learn the ropes—as I had never been a government employee before—but last year I moved a block away to the arts center and it was the right thing to do. It is a crossroads for all sorts of people. I’ve had Boston Globe reporters, New York artists looking to move here, teenagers, and business owners walk through the door and get seduced by the creative ferment.

What do you think should be the future of the old General Electric site?

I would love to see a large film production studio there. Massachusetts recently passed some very nice incentives for filmmaking in the state after several years of stalemate in this arena. At the same time, there is a great group of film-business folks in the Berkshires who are putting together a countywide film commission to attract and work with filmmakers in our area. We have a wide variety of locations, both rural and urban, great architecture from many different periods in Pittsfield, and filming here is much cheaper than in Boston.

Would you rather be in a kayak or a hammock?

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been in either one! My job tends toward 24/7, but recently I’ve begun to practice the art of porch sitting. Last year, a friend and I bought an old duplex with three porches on a block that dead-ends at a pedestrian bridge over the west branch of the Housatonic River. We picked up an old porch glider on Freecycle (, an e-mail list where people post things they don’t want or need anymore for others to take away, and now watching the trees move in the wind, listening to birds sing and children squeal, and not doing much at all is my new summer recreation.

What’s getting the most play on your iPod lately?

I don’t own an iPod. What I’m listening to in the car this week is an old album by Camper Van Beethoven called Our Revolutionary Sweetheart and at home I’ve had Youssou N’Dour’s album Egypt on heavy rotation, which is very beautiful. Camper Van is from Santa Cruz, California, near my original hometown of Monterey, so I guess it’s a little bit of home, that sound of cheerfully twisted serendipity.

What very ordinary thing is hard for you to do?

Cleaning my house and workspace. This has been true since I was a small child, so I don’t think it’s going to change. I felt a lot better about this when a friend of mine offered up a quote by [novelist] Isaac Bashevis Singer. He said something to the effect of: “God created the world out of chaos. Who am I to disturb his raw material?” Now, I have searched for the quote online and couldn’t find it, but I did find another quote from Singer on his own workroom: “I can say I have accomplished one thing in my life. My chaos has reached perfection.”

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