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State of the Arts in the Ohio Valley

Part 2: Painting the Town

February 24, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

"Art Builds Communities" is also the name of a grant program promoting participation and collaboration between artists and the community-at-large. As the coordinator of a "Culture Builds Communities" grant (same program, different name) for an agency in Rochester, New York, this writer saw the process in action first hand.

Case study 2. Webster-Goodman Park

A vacant, triangle-shaped lot was an eyesore at the intersection of two main thoroughfares on Rochester's northeast side at the entrance to the agency's service area. Two seedy mini-marts, marginal rental housing and old, deteriorating businesses surrounded it. Pedestrians had worn dirt paths through overgrown weeds, depositing their hypodermic needles, beer cans and crack baggies as they traversed to and from drug houses.

Article Photos

The Centre Market district of Wheeling is one area where arts and community meet. Art-oriented businesses like a bookshop, flower shop, art gallery, talent business, Towngate Theater and regular live music nights attract patrons and artists as well as other unique businesses.

The agency's prior director secured a CBC grant and chose a sculpture project with artist David Merkel. A new director took over the agency, and hired this writer. The grant required community input for the project, so a series of planning meetings with the artist were held in the service area neighborhoods, and what emerged was that the residents and businesses did not want a simple sculpture but their desire to make the lot look nice and to make it more functional and integrated.

Merkel created a plan with a central garden, surrounded by landscaping and paved paths that radiated from the central space and crossed through the triangle. He designed bronze disks to embed in the paths with images that portrayed words like "friendship," "community," "home," etc. The people were thrilled, and nearly all of the construction was done by these volunteers, mostly in the evenings and on weekends.

To further elevate the area and make it a showpiece, Merkel designed a low cobblestone wall roughly following the perimeter. A stone mason showed them how to lay cobblestones, and one group of volunteers crafted it from there.

One of the seedy mini-marts got so uncomfortable with all of the positive activity that it closed down, and a legitimate business moved in. Landlords began painting and repairing some of the surrounding properties. The Regional Transit Authority was impressed enough to add a bus stop at the park and build the stop's shelter, an estimated $10,000 investment.

The ribbon cutting was held on Arbor Day as part of the City of Rochester's Arbor Day proclamation and historic tree planting ceremony that year. A church group approached the agency about one of their groups maintaining the park as a community service project, and United Way "Day of Caring" volunteers did the park's spring clean-up every year.

That is one example of how art can help build community. The original project amount was $15,000. There is certain groundwork, however, that needs to be in place before this process can be successful.

In 2002, Richard Florida, then an economist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, shook the community and economic development realms up a bit with his book The Rise of the Creative Class. His studies indicated that the population was moving away from traditional occupations and towards a creative socioeconomic trend of designers, architects, artists, writers, computer programmers, software developers, scientists, engineers and media specialists. In addition, he noted that these workers would gravitate toward places that encouraged creative thinking and leave other, more conservative areas in droves. Florida named several cities that he believed would reap the benefits of this migration.

His theory points to three characteristics of place that seem to foster and attract creative thinkers: opportunities for career advancement, cultural diversity and individuality. In a later book he updated these characteristics as "the three Ts:" talent, tolerance and technology.

Admittedly over the past 10 years, critics have called Florida out on his broad definitions of "creative" and what many consider his elitist outlook on the working population, but he certainly got the conversation about connections between arts and economy into the spotlight.

A city like Rochester (population 210,565) is considered conservative by many, but has historically been a hotbed of innovation and tolerance. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass is buried in Rochester, and Susan B. Anthony's home is a National Historic Landmark and Museum honoring women's rights. George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, discovered how to make photography accessible to the masses. By the time of his death in 1932, Eastman had donated more than $100 million to found Eastman School of Music, dental clinics and assist colleges and universities.

The city's population is ethnically diverse, and festivals and events celebrate those cultures. There is support and encouragement for historic and architectural preservation. Organizations like the University of Rochester, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox and Rochester Institute of Technology foster technological advances and creative thinking. Building on arts and culture assets has long been part of city and regional strategic plans.

However, says Larry Merry, director of the Belmont County Port Authority, someone has to implement the plan. Merry does support artistic efforts and instituted a public art project in Zanesville when he was Muskingum County's port authority director. Belmont County's economic development strategic plan does not include arts specifically, but does encourage "entrepreneurial" endeavors.

"Music has been a major part of the history in Wheeling, so, yes, I think arts and culture playing a part in the economy is viable," notes Merry. "Growth in the region and an improving economy will bring more jobs here and give people more money, more disposable income. For an arts community to survive and be successful there has to be disposable income."

Merry also believes that more exposure to the arts will garner more support for artists and their projects and professions. "Until I really looked at Alan Cottrill's sculptures during the Zanesville project, I'd never had a true appreciation for art. Now I understand."

How does this area compare in that support? The "Local Arts Index" on the Americans for the Arts website ( measures several categories of criteria by county. One line, total per capita consumer expenditures on entertainment fees, recorded media, musical instruments, photographic materials and reading materials shows that people in Monroe County, N.Y. (Rochester) spend an average of $305.43 annually; Clatsop County, Ore. (Cannon Beach,) $364.51; Ohio County, W.Va., $297.10; Belmont County, Ohio, $260.99.

Another line, "total nonprofit arts revenue per capita," shows donations and program revenue per person amounts to $139.92 in Monroe Co., N.Y.; $113.96 in Clatsop Co., Ore.; $58.82 in Ohio Co., W.Va.; $0.82 in Belmont Co., Ohio.

A "Creative Industries" survey indicates that creative industries account for 3.73 percent of Ohio's businesses and 1.65 percent of Ohio's workforce and 2.63 percent of West Virginia's businesses and 1.48 percent of the state's workforce.

Looking again at the "Local Arts Index" though brings those numbers closer to home. In Ohio County, the arts and culture share of all business establishments is on target at 2.65 percent and arts and culture share of all employees is 0.86 percent. In Belmont County, the numbers are far below the state's at 1.44 percent of all business establishments and 0.04 percent of employees.

Exposure to the arts is vital, and support and encouragement for artists could enhance an area's overall economy. How is this area fostering and educating future artists? The next article will look at why art in education is important.



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