- Editor Brian K. Mahoney
In late April, we hosted a discussion here at Chronogram headquarters, in the Beahive space downstairs, on the economic role of the arts in communities. It was the first event in our Local Living Economy speaker series. We invited a trio of savvy, nonprofit veterans for our panel: Nancy Donskoj, Kingston’s Main Street Manager; Cabot Parsons, who chairs Beacon’s Arts Board; and Megan Whilden, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Each took 10 minutes to explain how the arts positively impact the economic health of his or her community. Then we opened it up to questions from the audience.
Say the words “economic development presentation” and I’m already halfway asleep. Nothing dulls the senses like PowerPoint. Knowing this about myself, I wasn’t expecting many people to show up on a Monday night. But the evening turned out to be a hit! Over 50 people attended to listen and be heard, and many were fired up to talk about ways in which the arts benefit the community, and network with the like-minded.
Parsons, Whilden, and Donskoj all told redevelopment narratives that tracked how arts-fueled initiatives fostered a more widespread cultural dynamism and economic incubation.
In Pittsfield, the opening of galleries and theaters in the past five years has led to restaurants and retail shops following suit, breathing new life into a once moribund downtown.
Any discussion of Beacon’s recent renewal must mention Dia:Beacon’s looming presence as an attractor of over 50,000 visitors per year. But before there was Dia, gallerists and artists were populating the city’s Main Street, lured by abundant space, affordable rents, and proximity to New York City.
Kingston’s story is not as straightforwardly optimistic in trajectory as Pittsfield’s or Beacon’s—there’s no cultural behemoth like Dia ready to swoop in and the city’s geographical separation into distinct, nonaligned quadrants makes Donskoj’s new job as Main Street Manager especially difficult—but the impact of the arts on the economy are clear in Kingston as well.
Kingston’s marquee cultural event each year is the Artists Soapbox Derby, held each August in the city’s Rondout district (August 22 this year). Not coincidentally, Nancy Donskoj and her husband George conceived the event 16 years ago and still run it. It attracts thousands of people who stand four deep along Broadway to watch the artists’ creations roll past, in what the Donskojs call a “gravity-powered, kinetic sculpture race.” (Neat phrase, that.) Needless to say, many of those thousands of people patronize the local businesses before, during, and after the event.
The Derby is the best calling card a town could have, but this year, due to the untoward economic climate, the city of Kingston has decided not to donate many of the in-kind services it has offered in years past—police overtime, etc.—and many of the Derby’s corporate sponsors have withdrawn their support as well. But the Donskojs, in true bootstrapping-artist fashion, have launched a grassroots donation campaign on Kickstarter.com (search for “Kingston Artists Soapbox Derby”), through which they hope to garner the funding they need to continue the Derby. Kickstarter is a great way for those of us who’ve enjoyed the Derby for free for many years to show our support with a small donation.
Another local nonprofit has benefited from a grassroots fundraising campaign on the Internet recently. The Rosendale Theater Collective, which is in the process of finalizing the purchase of the town’s only theater, was awarded a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh grant. The awarding of the grant was the result of a coordinated get-out-the-vote effort (you can vote once a day) that pushed the RTC to the top of the list of organizations on Pepsi’s competitive funding list in April.
Pepsi’s Refresh Project is an interesting idea—the soft drink maker will award $20 million in grants this year to organizations that apply to compete each month in various categories—arts and culture, neighborhoods, education, etc. To get the money, the organizations engage in what is essentially a grassroots marketing campaign for Pepsi, encouraging their supporters to vote for them on Pepsi’s www.refresheverything.com website, which mixes product placement with lists of noble causes.
Most other local nonprofits should take note, especially the arts organizations, as the funding cuts that are slated to come down the pike look gruesome. While no state budget has been passed as of press time, Governor Patterson is proposing to cut 40 percent of the state’s allotment to the arts this year, a decrease of over $15 million. In our Local Luminary feature this month (p. 13), Benjamin Krevolin, president of the Dutchess County Arts Council, one of the more knowledgeable figures on the local arts scene, talks about the crisis that traditional arts organizations are increasingly finding themselves in and some possible new ways to preserve them into the future. There is hope! And as Krevolin told me: “We have to keep the energy up about consuming art. If people love the arts, they have to make that love infectious.”
Shameless Self-Promotion Department
On Friday, June 25 at 7pm, I’ll be reading with Chronogram’s poetry editor, Phillip Levine, at Boughton Place in Highland. The event is a benefit for Read for Food, which presents poets and writers reading their work—past readers include Eamon Grennan, Donald Lev, and Nancy Willard—and donates the proceeds to three local food pantries: Family of New Paltz, Queens Galley, and the Rosendale Food Pantry. There’s a $5 suggested donation and you can bring some canned or dry goods along as well. Thanks to the ministrations of the series’ organizer, Paul Clemente, all proceeds go directly to charity. The featured readings will be followed by an open mike. For more information: www.readforfood.org.