Jess White promoted to chief operating officer
(Somerville Wire) – The Somerville Armory is changing. The former militia headquarters at 191 Highland Ave. was owned since 2004 by Joseph and Nabil Sater, owners of the Middle East nightclub and restaurant in Cambridge, who invested in substantial renovations to create spaces for a variety of arts uses. But last June, the City of Somerville acquired the building through eminent domain. City government is currently beginning the process of developing a master plan for managing the building.
The anchor tenant of the Armory is a nonprofit organization, Center for Arts at the Armory, which manages the main hall, the café and a small room in the basement. There are currently a handful of other tenants of the Armory, ranging from recording studios to a fitness studio to acoustic stringed instrument repair. But CAA runs most of the major events in the building. The organization has five of its own signature programs, and also hosts outside groups’ events.
As part of its own “journey of rebirth,” Arts at the Armory recently changed its management structure. Jess White, formerly operations manager, is now chief operating officer and co-director along with Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Scherpf.
According to Scherpf, the rebirth process really began before she was hired in 2019, when the organization expanded its staff and its board of directors. Since then, she said, “We’ve had new leadership, a new landlord, a pandemic, and in the midst of all this, the operations manager moved on to another job.”
White was hired as their new operations manager in August, “and from day one, I really looked to Jess as a partner and colleague,” Scherpf said. “I talked to my board about the fact that I did see Jess as a partner and worked toward making that a reality on paper—to change our model a bit and have us as co-directors, and really give the organization a fighting chance.”
White joined Arts at the Armory after more than 25 years of diverse experience in arts management. She’s been enthusiastic about the Armory since she first walked in the door about three years ago. At the time, she was running the Entertainment Management program at Bay State College.
“I was looking for a new studio space to run a studio recording class. So I went in to go check out Dead Moon Audio [a recording studio located in the lower level of the Armory]. So I walked into the building, and as soon as I walked in, I was like, What is this place? This is amazing! I was immediately drawn into the building. It just had this amazing vibe to it. There was art all over the place, and I could smell the café, and there was music coming from Acoustic Strings [another tenant]. And I was totally enchanted by it.”
When the operations manager job opened up last summer, “I said, that is exactly where I want to be, so I applied for it, and it worked out in my favor.”
“It was really an amazing opportunity that she came into our lives,” Scherpf said of White, citing her extensive experience in entertainment management as well as “the business side of music.” With their mission to provide an inclusive and accessible venue made more difficult by the skyrocketing cost of space in Somerville, Arts at the Armory is trying to figure out how to remain financially sustainable.
“I think Jess and I agree that it’s really about trying to create a sliding-scale model where, on the one hand, we’re providing the space for free or at a significantly reduced rate, and on the other hand, whether it be for a private rental, a band on tour, or a wedding, how are we getting the income we need in order to keep our organization afloat?” Scherpf said. “It’s really a challenge because with real estate becoming so expensive, and artists getting priced out of Somerville, the arts really cannot compete at market rate. So how are we going to find a business model that’s going to allow arts spaces and artists to continue doing the work that’s so valuable to our community?”
White and Scherpf hope their organization can contribute to positive changes as the City of Somerville determines the building’s direction. “They’re in the beginning phases of planning what the management of the building will look like in the future. It definitely is a work in progress,” White said. “I will say that we do have a good relationship with the City of Somerville. We are involved, and I think we can be more involved. We communicate well. But it’s kind of a new process and we’re still figuring out what it’s going to look like.”
In addition to diverse programming and financial stability, Scherpf is also hoping that the Armory “really does become a landmark within Somerville, as a go-to for arts, cultural and community events, but also for Greater Boston. So we’re working on more signature programming, so we’re not just hosting other people’s events, but we’re curating and producing our own.”
White added enthusiastically, “You walk up to the Armory and it’s a giant white sand castle! It’s this huge, amazing, incredibly unique building. Then you walk in, and it literally taps into every one of your senses. The smells, the sounds, the way it looks, every part of it affects a person. And I think that when you walk in and you have that experience, the big picture that I want people to see in the next five years is that it’s not a well-kept secret anymore. That it’s actually very well known, that people know what to anticipate, that they’re going to come in and see a great piece of art or a great show, or have a great experience in the café, or have a space where they can meet in the community and see things that touch them and feel amazing.”
For more information about upcoming events, including their May 20 fundraising gala, visit http://artsatthearmory.org/
Image: Stephanie Scherpf and Jess White (right), co-directors of Center for Arts at the Armory. Courtesy photo.
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Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.