New year, new look: Bombyx Center adds more varied arts programming to its lineup while making infrastructure improvements

Mountain River Taiko artistic director Miho Connolly, left, leads a Try Taiko class on the Japanese drums in the Peacock Room at Bombyx. The Florence arts center has added new events in the past several months, including film, theater, and dance, in addition to its live music lineup.

Mountain River Taiko artistic director Miho Connolly, left, leads a Try Taiko class on the Japanese drums in the Peacock Room at Bombyx. The Florence arts center has added new events in the past several months, including film, theater, and dance, in addition to its live music lineup. STAFF PHOTOs / DAN LITTLE

The Bombyx Center has added sound insulation to its main performance area, the sanctuary, and now has plans drawn up for installing a sprinkler system in the space.

The Bombyx Center has added sound insulation to its main performance area, the sanctuary, and now has plans drawn up for installing a sprinkler system in the space. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Northampton firefighters practice this month with a new ladder truck at the Bombyx Center in Florence. Officials at the arts center say they’re developing a new rapport with the department after it briefly shut down live music there last spring due to safety concerns.

Northampton firefighters practice this month with a new ladder truck at the Bombyx Center in Florence. Officials at the arts center say they’re developing a new rapport with the department after it briefly shut down live music there last spring due to safety concerns. Photo by and courtesy of Cassandra Holden

Northampton firefighters show their new ladder truck to some young onlookers during a practice they held earlier this month at the Bombyx Center in Florence.

Northampton firefighters show their new ladder truck to some young onlookers during a practice they held earlier this month at the Bombyx Center in Florence. Photo by and courtesy of Cassandra Holden

The Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity also houses the Florence Congregational Church, the Beit Ahavah Synagogue, and the Cloverdale Cooperative Preschool.

The Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity also houses the Florence Congregational Church, the Beit Ahavah Synagogue, and the Cloverdale Cooperative Preschool. Gazette file photo

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx and John Losito, facilities and project manager, say many infrastructure improvements have been made at the Florence center in the past several months.

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx and John Losito, facilities and project manager, say many infrastructure improvements have been made at the Florence center in the past several months. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx and John Losito, the facilities project manager, outside the arts center. Holden calls Losito, who also handles sound engineering and many other technical duties at Bombyx, “our magician.”

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx and John Losito, the facilities project manager, outside the arts center. Holden calls Losito, who also handles sound engineering and many other technical duties at Bombyx, “our magician.”

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx and John Losito, facilities and project manager, say a new project at the arts center will see Florence painter Sean Greene, seen in back, paint a mural in what’s now called the Rainbow Room, to be used for community meetings and group events.

Cassandra Holden, executive director of Bombyx and John Losito, facilities and project manager, say a new project at the arts center will see Florence painter Sean Greene, seen in back, paint a mural in what’s now called the Rainbow Room, to be used for community meetings and group events. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Florence painter Sean Greene works on a mural for what’s now known as the Rainbow Room at the Bombyx Center in Florence.

Florence painter Sean Greene works on a mural for what’s now known as the Rainbow Room at the Bombyx Center in Florence. Photo by and courtesy of Cassandra Holden

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-22-2024 1:30 PM

What a difference a year makes.

Late last May, the Northampton Fire Department abruptly shut down virtually all music performances at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, citing inadequate fire prevention measures at the venue.

The move bewildered Bombyx staff and board members, who said they’d been sharing their development plans with the city since opening in late 2021 and been told they were operating correctly.

A week later, the city just as quickly rescinded its shut-down order for music. But Bombyx was also given some new guidelines for making infrastructure improvements, especially speeding up installation of an expensive emergency sprinkler system in its main performance space.

And few weeks after that, the city’s Licensing Commission, following a contentious meeting at which many people spoke favorably about the arts center, greatly restricted its ability to host events with alcohol through one-day liquor licenses, leading to a loss of income.

Yet this month the Fire Department has been conducting training sessions at Bombyx and evaluating its new fire alarm system, while plans to make additional infrastructure improvements at the center continue to advance.

And in the past several months, Bombyx has offered an ever-broader variety of events, from film to theater to dance, in addition to community-based workshops.

“It was always our intention that we do more than music,” Cassandra Holden, executive director at Bombyx, said during a recent interview at the center. “We’re becoming more of a performing arts center.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Holyoke man finds bear paw in his yard
Boyfriend accused in slaying of Hampden sheriff’s assistant, former legislator’s top aide
Three finalists named for Ryan Road School principal in Northampton
Developer pitches new commercial building on Route 9 in Hadley
Two men dump milk, orange juice over themselves at Amherst convenience store
Sadiq to leave Amherst middle school principal role

Holden notes that she and her partner at Bombyx, Kyle Homstead, “launched” the center with music since they had experience presenting concerts in this region and elsewhere through their company Laudable Productions.

“It’s easiest to lead with the thing you’re familiar with,” added Holden. “But we’ve learned a lot more about presenting other things and making connections with the community.”

As one example, last fall the center purchased a projector and movie screen to show “Four Winters,” an acclaimed documentary by Northampton filmmaker Julia Mintz on Jewish partisan fighters in WWII.

Earlier this month, Bombyx screened “Faces of Medicine,” the first of a series of documentary films on Black female doctors that have been produced by Amherst physician Khama Ennis. Holden says they’re planning to bring other films to the center.

The Performance Project, a Springfield theatrical and dance ensemble for teens and young people, has also performed at Bombyx, as have teen dancers and other artists associated with Northampton’s School for Contemporary Dance & Thought.

And this month veteran actor Raye Birk, whose lengthy resume includes work in theater, television, and film, opened an eight-week acting workshop at the center. Other community events include classes on spirituality and contact improvisation dance.

As well, a number of community music groups, including the Young@Heart Chorus and the drummers of Mountain River Taiko, regularly rehearse at the center.

Not that Bombyx has given up on producing a variety of live music. After a quiet January, many new late winter and spring concerts have been added, some of which have quickly sold out. Holden also doesn’t see a problem in terms of competition with the planned reopening of the long-shuttered Iron Horse Music Hall in early May.

“I think a rising tide lifts all boats,” she said. “We need a vital downtown and a vital Florence. More [musical] options means more people.”

And John Losito, facilities and project manager for Bombyx, echoes that thought, saying the different capacities of all the varied venues in the area — Bombyx currently seats about 300 — means “there are opportunities to hear a pretty wide range of music.”

Revamping an old building

Through all this programming, Holden and Losito say steady improvements have been made to the center, such as the installation of thermal insulation in the sanctuary to minimize noise from concerts, which became an issue last year for some neighbors.

That insulation “makes a huge difference,” said Losito, who has regularly measured sound levels inside and out during concerts. “It’s really quiet.”

A brief recap: The Bombyx Center is located in the historic Congregational Church of Florence, which dates to the 1860s. The center houses the church, the Beit Ahavah synagogue, and the Cloverdale Cooperative Preschool, which rent space from Bombyx.

The art center took over management of the property in late 2021 with a six-year, lease-to-own deal, and the sanctuary is used for concerts and for services for the Congregational Church and Beit Ahavah.

That unusual arrangement has been a lifesaver for the church, according to its pastor, Marisa Egerstrom. Last year she said the church could not have survived on its own, given a dwindling congregation and building maintenance costs.

But the arrangement also led to confusion when the Fire Department, responding to a noise complaint several neighbors sent to the city’s Building Department, showed up at Bombyx, classified it a nightclub, and briefly shut down live music. A number of shows had to be canceled, at a loss the center estimated at $20,000 or more.

However, a few months ago, Holden says she invited the city’s new fire inspector, Natalie Stollmeyer, for a “walk and talk” to show her what the center does and to update the department on infrastructure improvements.

“I said ‘We’re installing a security system, we’re installing new fire alarms, and we’re working on our sprinkler system, so come get to know us and our building,’” said Holden. “And we went through every room — it’s a complex place.”

Bombyx is also working with the Fire Department to develop an emergency response plan after Beit Ahavah received two emailed bomb threats late last year. “I think we’re building a good working relationship,” added Holden.

Good enough, in fact, that when Stollmeyer mentioned the department had a new ladder truck they wanted to practice on, Holden invited firefighters to do it at Bombyx: “We have roofs of every pitch and type, we have a high steeple and low-hanging wires. There’s lots to work with.”

“Pastor Marisa and I even got to play on the ladder truck a bit,” Holden added with a laugh.

Meantime, a long-awaited engineering drawing for the sprinkler system — Losito says many contractors are still backlogged from delays stemming from the pandemic — has now been completed and will be shared with city officials and the building’s architect.

It’s a huge project — $400,000 — but Holden says her hope is that it will be completed this year. Bombyx has about half the money in hand from grants and donations and is seeking additional monies, including from the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s facilities fund.

Other plans involve installing more soundproofing insulation in what’s known as the Peacock Room, where many workshops and rehearsals are held, and eventually bringing the whole complex into full ADA compliance.

If late spring and early summer 2023 brought an unexpected trial with the city over the art center’s plans, today Holden says “I’m really grateful that our relationship with city departments is improving. We’re really trying to have good, clear, proactive communication.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.