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By Chase Hagaman

My hope is not that everyone grows up to be a musician or artist, but everyone grows up with music and art in their life and carries that through the rest of their life no matter what they do,” said Russ Grazier, co-founder and CEO of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center.

A well-known face in the Portsmouth music scene, Grazier is recognized for his talent and skill on the saxophone, but that is not where his passion for music began.

“I discovered my love of music before I started playing saxophone; I was a guitar player at age eight,” he said. “I took lessons at Daddy’s Junky Music Store when it used to be on the Franklin Block in downtown Portsmouth, and I just played constantly.”

That passion eventually translated into founding PMAC with his wife Katie in November 2002 as a response to Portsmouth’s newly adopted cultural plan – commissioned by then Mayor Evelyn Sirrell.

“We knew it was something that there was a need for that didn’t exist here,” Grazier said.

This is the first in a series in which I interview some of the key leaders in our city, unsung heroes in the community and those that have had a positive impact in Portsmouth.

I began this series with Russ and Katie Grazier (Katie was unable to participate in the interview) because they epitomize service and dedication to the arts and they have had an incredibly positive impact on our community by stepping up with an idea to meet a need and then seeing it through. But I should also note that I serve on the organization’s Board of Directors.

Russ and Katie, through their efforts with PMAC, are passionate and committed to providing high-level educational opportunities, programming accessible to the entire community and encouraging creative exploration.

They have helped guide PMAC to great success while keeping the focus on students and the community. Still, you are unlikely to hear either take credit for the fact that PMAC is growing and thriving.

Like most nonprofit ventures, it has not always been easy, and it has required a lot of hard work and help from supporters, mentors and more.

“It’s an incredible team effort that takes place at the organization every year,” Grazier said. “We have a team that steps up and addresses everything head on. . .the faculty as a whole has been amazing.”

He heaped praise and appreciation on many others, from volunteers and community supporters to key donors and board members.

Grazier also highlighted individuals like Gail Berneike, someone who started with PMAC as an adult student on the very first day of the program and has committed countless hours as a volunteer. And 15 years later, she still participates in the concert band every Tuesday night.

“People like that have had a huge impact on the organization,” he said.

All that effort, community support and teamwork has helped PMAC grow from just 12 students in the Portsmouth High School band room in March 2003 to now over 800 students each year, ranging from age 4 to retirement.

The organization also provides approximately 75 free concerts, exhibitions, lectures and events for the community each year and has partnered with other great organizations, like the Prescott Park Arts Festival, 3S Artspace, the Music Hall and more.

PMAC has become a community staple and indispensable resource.

“One of the things I love about the way we have designed the programming is that it complements the arts programming within the schools, doesn’t recreate anything that’s happening there and offers opportunities for extended study,” Grazier said.

The organization and its leadership also put great emphasis on ensuring programming is accessible. With help from generous supporters, it is now able to provide nearly $50,000 in tuition aid annually.

“Providing that level of tuition aid to people in the community was a really big milestone, knowing that PMAC wasn’t going to become an exclusive type of school where you could only go if you could afford it,” Grazier said. “Seeing us achieve that was really important.”

Although its roots go back to Albany Street, PMAC’s current home on Islington has been an exceptional place to grow and expand its program offerings.

“Going from the old building to the new building was really remarkable,” he said. “It strengthened our community and people felt connected to one another because everything was taking place in one space.” Russ and Katie see a bright future for PMAC and its role in our city.

“It’s not just a place for musicians and artists,” Grazier said. “It’s really a place for everyone in the community.”

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Chase Hagaman is a community advisory member of Seacoast Media Group’s editorial board and New England regional director of The Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that educates on the importance of responsible federal fiscal policy.


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