The Cape Cod Effect: Cultural Districts

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2018 /

Writer: Allyson Plessner

The Cape Cod Effect: Cultural Districts


Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2018 /

Writer: Allyson Plessner

Aselton Park, Hyannis HyArts District

Aselton Park, Hyannis HyArts District

Cultural districts throughout the Cape & Islands invest in unique artistic opportunity, economic growth and the vibrant cultural personalities of towns across the region

An unparalleled push against postmodernism in the form of limestone, glass and a daring architectural plan led to the creation of a building by Frank Gehry that singlehandedly pulled the city of Bilbao, Spain out of cultural back alleys. The Guggenheim Museum, inaugurated by King Juan Carlos I in 1997, is a classic example of the astounding effect that even just a taste of culture can have on urban development. In what has since become known as the “Bilbao effect,” regions across the world now turn to the arts in the hopes of transforming uninspiring areas into cultural meccas.

While the Guggenheim is perhaps an extreme, perhaps unrepeatable example of the way in which an investment in culture can pull a down-on-its-luck and dangerous city into an era of financial growth and international prestige, it does place a spotlight on the importance of culture and the undeniable relationship between the arts and economic development. A thriving cultural center gives a community a sense of identity, a vibrant spirit and a clear vision for the future, and on the Cape and Islands, there is no shortage of cultural epicenters.

From Barnstable to Provincetown and everywhere in between—including the beloved islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard—different areas have been designated as “cultural districts,” with an energetic focus on public programs in the arts, humanities and sciences as a way to enhance a community and attract tourism.

Plein air painting at Aquinnah Light, Martha's Vineyard

Plein air painting at Aquinnah Light, Martha’s Vineyard

“The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) has defined a cultural district as a specific geographical area that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities and assets,” explains Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. “The Massachusetts Cultural Council defines it as a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity. Only a municipality can apply for a cultural district designation.” Applying for a designation gives community members the opportunity to unite under a common purpose: telling the story of their town.

How does a cultural district receive its designation? An act of the Massachusetts state legislature in 2010 ensures support, including state incentives and resources, for cultural districts. These areas are expected to not only attract artists but also to encourage business growth, preserve and make use of historic architecture, enhance property values, establish tourist destinations and foster continued cultural development. As the Massachusetts Cultural Council puts it, “One of the distinct attributes of Massachusetts is the authenticity of its communities. From urban centers and fishing ports in the east, to rural hamlets and older industrial centers in the west, the Commonwealth incorporates a wide range of distinctive places. The Cultural District Initiative encourages Massachusetts communities to strengthen this sense of place, while stimulating economic activity, improving the experiences of visitors to our communities, and creating a higher quality of life.”

Across the Cape and Islands, there are currently nine cultural districts, in areas including Barnstable, Sandwich, Orleans, Wellfleet, Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and a recent grant provided by the Massachusetts Cultural Council will ensure two more districts in Harwich Center and Harwich Port within the next year. Each cultural district’s designation is subject for renewal every five years.

Dexter Grist Mill in Sandwich

“We are honored to be chosen to be part of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Compact as the only town in the Commonwealth this year along with five cities,” says Cyndi Williams, executive director of the Harwich Chamber of Commerce. “These two new designations will welcome visitors, both domestic and international, which will elongate the economic season and allow us to showcase all that Harwich has to offer.” With the town still in the early stages of development, Williams is excited to see what each new day brings. “This collaboration with the Cultural Council, the town and the stakeholders is going to be an amazing journey,” she says.

Harwich Art in the Park

Harwich Art in the Park

The mission statement of the Orleans Cultural District perhaps sums up the goals and responsibilities of a district best: “The Orleans Cultural District promotes fine arts and culture and fosters the endeavors of artists and arts supporters through enhanced opportunity and innovative collaboration, embracing an environment supportive to the creative economy.”

Orleans Cultural District

As part of a cultural district designation, the city or town must participate in the state cultural district signage program. Signs like this one mark different cultural districts across the Cape and Islands.

“Cultural districts enhance a community, support arts and cultural activities and the economic vitality of towns and cities, and provide a welcoming environment for artists, writers, environmentalists, performers, curators and businesses who seek an enriched quality of life,” says Sherry Rhyno, co-chair of the Orleans Cultural District. “Orleans is a wonderful town where I combine my painting, owning and managing a fine art gallery, and volunteering as I give back to this community as a leader of the Orleans Village Center Cultural District. The enthusiasm, creativity, innovation and cooperation realized in this cultural district is exhilarating.”

No two cultural districts are the same—a fact that speaks to the vast diversity and exciting cultural differences that are celebrated across the Cape and Islands. “Each cultural district has a title that speaks to its offerings,” explains Rhyno. “For Orleans, our official designation is the Orleans Village Center Cultural District. Our Village Center is a walkable area. We published a walking tour of the district, complete with art galleries, shops and restaurants, historic markers, sites, museums, community centers and galleries, artist studios, greenspace and recreation, performing arts areas, public sculptures and murals.” The creation of a cultural district requires community members to join together and define the best parts about their district and the best ways in which to promote them. “The MCC knows that each district is different, and the program allows communities to define their district in a way that makes the most sense,” elaborates Gardella. “The two districts on Martha’s Vineyard, the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District (VHHCD) and the Aquinnah Circle Cultural District meet the criteria but are very different from one another.”

“Cultural districts have it all: the arts, history, culture, dining, shopping and natural beauty interwoven with the story of the community,” says Gardella. “They invite people in to take a closer look, to notice the details, to get their feet sandy, spark their imaginations, delight their senses. Our cultural districts should be on the top of everyone’s must-experience list on the Vineyard, and throughout Massachusetts.”

Hyannis Armory

The Hyannis Armory, established in 1958, where President-elect John F. Kennedy gave his victory speech in 1960. Today, the armory is open to the public as part of the Kennedy Legacy Trail.

List of Cultural Districts:

Aquinnah Circle Cultural & Historic District

Barnstable Village Cultural District

Glass Town Cultural District

Hyannis HyArts Cultural District

Nantucket Cultural District

Orleans Village Center Cultural District

Provincetown Cultural District

Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District

Wellfleet Cultural District



Seaside Bridal Couture

Allyson Plessner

Allyson Plessner is a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life and now works for the publication as a staff writer and digital media coordinator. Born in Florida, Allyson has been a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. She is a recent alumna of the College of Charleston, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed bachelor’s degrees in both English and Spanish. In her free time, Allyson is an avid sailor, beach-goer, and—like her fellow Cape Cod Life colleagues—a dog-lover.