NASHUA, N.H. —In early April, Nashua Center for the Arts opened its doors after more than two decades of planning.
New Hampshire artist laureate Theo Martey and his ensemble, Akwaaba, were among the first to perform in the new 750-seat theater. Martey is originally from Ghana. His ensemble includes members from Ghana and Guinea, who perform African music, dance, and drumming.
Akwaaba means “welcome” in the Twi language of the Ashanti tribe of Ghana, and Martey used the word to describe the new performing arts venture. He said it was a privilege to inaugurate the theater and hopes other artists of color will have the same opportunity.
“Music has a power that, even if you don’t understand a person’s language, you still get to move into their music,” he said. In a predominantly white state like New Hampshire, he views the performing arts as an opportunity for people from different backgrounds to come together.
The lack of diversity in the state when Martey first moved here in 2001 was one of the things that kept him here, he said. The quiet and trees of New Hampshire have since helped him write and produce new music.
“When I moved here, there was no African culture or music or anything going on here,” he said. He decided, “I would love to share what I know about African music with the people of New Hampshire or New England — that’s what kept me around.”
Discussions about opening a performing arts center have been simmering in Nashua since as early as the 1980s, according to Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess. In 2002, the city put out a feasibility report detailing both the need and demand for an arts facility. Donchess started working on those efforts again in earnest when he returned to office in 2016.
Donchess said it’s part of what he sees as a renaissance of the downtown. “The basic idea is to build a stronger, healthier downtown economy, support our local businesses, and to add vibrancy and just life to Nashua’s downtown,” he said.
The city financed $21 million of the $25 million cost of the building through bonds. Another $2.5 million came in a new market tax credit award. Fundraising brought in $4 million, including an anonymous $1 million donation, $500,000 from Bank of America, and $367,500 from the community development finance authority.
The city owns the building, but a private company, Spectacle Live, handles staffing, booking artists, and other operations. The company manages 10 other venues in the region, including Colonial Theatre in Laconia, which is another city-owned property. Donchess said the arrangement is meant to reassure skeptics that the city won’t be on the hook for subsidizing the venue’s ongoing operations on an annual basis and that experienced industry professionals will be in charge.
So far, ticket sales exceeded expectations, according to Donchess. Spectacle Live President Peter Lally said he’s leveraging his relationships in the music industry to convince national artists to make a stop. “There’s a kind of comfort level with the artists and the agents to know that we’re going to take good care of them and that we’ve had experience marketing this artist in the past,” he said.
First, he usually has to explain where Nashua is and how close it is to other “hub” cities like Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Portland.
The building itself is another big selling point, Lally said. Artists are often excited to inaugurate a new stage, and this one has lots of modern amenities. “It’s brand new,” Lally told the Globe, describing the smell of fresh paint still in the air. “It has state-of-the-art lights and sound, great dressing room amenities. It’s easy to load off the loading dock right next to the stage.”
And the space is versatile: At the press of a button, the 750-seats of the traditional theater retract to create an open floor space that can accommodate 1,000 people for standing events.
“The project has been a wonderful opportunity to work with the Nashua community,” said Ned Collier, Principal at Boston-based ICON Architecture, which served as the lead architect for the project. “ICON is passionate about community engagement as well as working with existing buildings. With the Center for the Arts, we have been able to bring together the historical city fabric and a modern full-service arts facility. We are excited to see the community embrace their new cultural center.”
Lally wants to bring a variety of acts to the venue: music, plays, comedy shows, as well as community events like workshops. His focus in the building’s first year will be fine tuning the building’s staffing, pitching the venue, and figuring out how to best market events there.
There are 32 shows on the calendar through October, including the 100th Anniversary concert for Symphony New Hampshire in April, “Menopause The Musical,” musicians like Suzanne Vega and Boz Scaggs, and Safe Haven Ballet’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
As in fashion, Lally said, there are cycles in the music industry, with artists who had radio hits 25 to 30 years ago making a comeback now. Some of those ‘90s acts will also be coming to Nashua, like Toad the Wet Sprocket. Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken appeared on the stage April 13 as a part of their 20-year reunion — the duo first appeared on “American Idol” in 2003.
Residents have been enthusiastic about the new acts, and the new venue. Manny Espitia, a Nashua resident who previously represented the city of Nashua at the State House, said he thinks it will help the downtown businesses flourish.
“I feel like it’s going to be a great vibe,” he said.
This article has been updated to add a comment from ICON Architecture.