A cultural force in Pittsfield is leaving her post within city government.
Megan Whilden, the city’s first director of cultural development, will be leaving the position she’s held for the past nine years. She will step down on May 16, the day after this year’s first 3rd Thursdays street festival, an event she helped create in 2007 that has since grown into an attraction for thousands.
“Having created an atmosphere where people want to actively participate, want to work together and want to make wonderful things happen, that’s a legacy that I’m very proud of,” Whilden said.
Her work has brought large events like Shakespeare in the Park and the Berkshire Fringe Festival coming to the city this summer. Whilden says she is moved by the personal connections she’s helped facilitate and experienced herself. She recalls a community book event one month in 2010 featuring local veterans reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories about American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
“That was very, very powerful month to me,” she said. “I probably cried a dozen times because it was so intense. It was so wonderful to be able to give the Vietnam veterans an opportunity to share their experiences in a way that wasn’t political or judgmental whatsoever and to really honor them for what they did.”
A native of Monterey, California, Whilden moved to the Berkshires just over a decade ago and quickly got involved helping local artists fill empty storefronts in Pittsfield.
“Part of my job has been to take Pittsfield and kind of dust it off and shine it up and say look at what a wonderful place we all live in,” Whilden said. “Helping people to come back to that and be proud and appreciate what we have here.”
Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi says Whilden’s creative spark has allowed her to be successful through two mayoral administrations. Now searching for her replacement, Bianchi says Whilden helped expose the area’s cultural potential to others in city government.
“She really made us realize that cultural development and the tourist economy is important to this area,” Bianchi. “Although we knew it intuitively I think she made it much more realistic.”
Whilden takes pride in knowing her office played a significant role in driving Pittsfield’s ongoing cultural and economic transformation, despite initial skepticism when her position was created.
“People would come up to me on the street during 3rd Thursdays and say ‘You know Megan I opposed hiring you when it came up, but now I understand and I am so grateful to you for bringing back the ethnic fair, for starting Third Thursdays and for all you’re doing,” Whilden recalled. “So I think that people could see the results and feel the results.”
Starting in June, Whilden will begin her new role as executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College. OLLI’s first executive director Barbara Hochberg will retire at the end of May. OLLI at BCC president Sandy Rubin says the roughly 1,000-member organization has been very fortunate to have Hochberg as its leader and believes Whilden will help it grow even further.
“We feel that Megan is very creative, she has wonderful ideas and lots of energy,” Rubin said. “We are thrilled to have her on board and we believe that she will help us move forward in a very strong way.”
Whilden, whose mother teaches an OLLI course in California, says she will continue her role as president of Berkshire Creative’s board of directors and her service with the development agency 1Berkshire.
“One of my real strong mottos is ‘arts are for everyone,” Whilden said. “That’s very much what I’ve tried to live up to here.”