Creativity on Display

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015 at 9:20 AM

A surprising number of art-related projects are underway in Northwestern Pa. as I write this.

In our immediate surroundings, the Erie County Historical Society is preparing to re-open the Hagen History Center on West Sixth Street this August. The Flagship Niagara will soon undergo a $4.8 million re-fit in 2017. The expERIEnce Children's Museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary through a series of workshops, fairs, and art shows. And the Lake Erie Ballet recently invested in new studio space.

In Grove City, sculptor and art instructor Glen Sanders is helping young people create public art projects. In Oil City, vacant Victorian homes are being converted into live/work spaces for artists. In Warren County, people with special needs are learning about print-making, fiber arts, and metal-working techniques. Finally, Sharon, Pa. is preparing to host Waterfire, a “multi-sensory art event” in which the Allegheny river is illuminated by a series of custom built baskets containing powerful flames.

I learned about these positive developments when Amanda Brown Sissem, the Executive Director of Erie Arts & Culture, took the stage for their 2015 summit on a rainy Monday afternoon at the Erie Art Museum. In her words, the Summit's goal was to cultivate “a culture that supports creativity and collaboration.” Accordingly, many of the creative people responsible for these recent developments were in attendance – and eager to share their ideas about the future as well.

The afternoon's special guest was Jenny Hershour, the Managing Director of Citizens for the Arts Pennsylvania, a grassroots advocacy organization that works to increase awareness about the arts in our lives. Hershour had some good news of her own. According to her organization, “the non-profit art industry in this state has an annual impact of over $2.5 billion, and generates more than $360 million in state and local tax revenue. This economic impact supports over 81,000 full-time equivalent jobs that produce 1.8 billion in household income.”

Although Hershour was visiting from Harrisburg, she shared an arts-related connection to Erie. In 2007, her daughter attended the Governor's School for the Arts, a summer program at Mercyhurst University which was defunded in 2009. Citizens for the Arts Pennsylvania is currently working to re-establish the program. They're also advocating to increase funding for several tax credit programs designed to provide arts education to underserved communities and to encourage filmmakers to shoot movies in the state of Pennsylvania.

When Hershour was finished speaking, the attendees worked in small groups to brainstorm ideas for greater artistic development. Each table was assigned a particular topic, including issues like sustainability, tourism, marketing initiatives, accessibility, community, and increased opportunities for artists.

My table – which included representatives from the Lake Erie Ballet, the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, and the Academy Theater in Meadville – was instructed to consider ways to “increase access” within our community. This framework prompted a productive discussion about the lack of knowledge about cultural programming on our college campuses. One attendee, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, mentioned a “scavenger hunt” she participated in during her first year of college, which was designed to introduce new students to things to do in the city. We all agreed that this was an excellent model to follow, and suggested implementing something like it in Erie.

After about twenty-five minutes, each group submitted their proposals and the event came to an end. The mood was a bit livelier as we began our exits – good ideas were beginning to take shape and friendly partnerships seemed more likely to put them into action. Hopefully by next year’s summit, some of our ideas will join the growing list of regional accomplishments.

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