City officials said by demonstrating those potential uses, CultureHouse Salem will advance a larger city initiative to revitalize the historic building by reimagining it as a center for local arts and cultural programming for residents and visitors.
“This is a very underused space that has not been made readily accessible to the community,” Julie Barry, Salem’s senior planner for arts and culture, said of the two-story brick Federal-style building. “There is so much potential there. We are just exploring what that potential can possibly be.”
CultureHouse Salem “is going to show us what the community wants to see, what the tourist industry wants to see, in the space,” Barry added.
Founded in 2017, CultureHouse works with municipalities and other partners to turn vacant downtown spaces into temporary cultural hubs, according to the group’s executive director, Aaron Greiner. He said the aim is to help identify new uses for those spaces while also promoting community engagement.
In one of its projects, the group created a month-long pop-up space last summer in a vacant Peabody downtown storefront where residents could share music, art, and other activities..
Greiner said CultureHouse welcomed the chance to partner with Salem because the city’s vision of finding a new use for an old building that would also meet the art and culture needs of its community fit well with his own group’s mission.
He said CultureHouse also was inspired by the opportunity to “test out new uses and therefore inform longer-term changes to this space.”
The group, which is currently meeting with community members to plan CultureHouse Salem, will be presenting a report to the city after the project that draws on that outreach and what it learned from the pop-up itself. The city and CultureHouse are teaming to cover the project costs through grants and their own funds.
Two other city partnerships, meanwhile, are bringing short-term cultural programming to Old Town Hall: an exhibition by sculptor Nancy Bowen through March 19, and free dance classes offered by Infuse Dance through June.
The oldest surviving municipal structure in Salem, the Old Town Hall features a second-story Great Hall that for much of its history has been used for public meetings and events. The first floor has often been used as public market space.
Currently, the building is used as rental space for private functions, and as a venue for a play about the Salem Witch trials staged annually during Halloween season by History Alive, a Salem theater company. But otherwise, it is largely dormant.
Concerned the building was in disrepair, Salem in 2019 conducted an assessment of its physical needs and potential future uses. From that study, the city settled on the current plan for the building and in 2021 began designing renovations aimed at realizing that vision.
Barry said transforming the Old Town Hall to an art and culture center would support local artists and attract visitors, help the overall city economy. She said CultureHouse Salem would help set the stage for that future initiative, which the city hopes to fund through grants.
Rishika Dhawan, CultureHouse’s community lead, said the Salem project is already being well received by residents.
“The community is very excited, based on my conversations,” she said. “Residents like the fact that they are being included and feeling they are part of what happens in the space.”
John Laidler can be reached at [email protected].