How to Grow a Local Arts Scene

Case Study: Woodbridge Township, New Jersey
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by Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D.
© 2011 Lawrence E. McCullough

This paper was given at the Arts & Sustainability Panel at the 2011 League of Municipalities Conference, Atlantic City, NJ.

* YOU *

… are a thoughtful, forward-looking municipal official who’s decided your community would benefit from having a lively Arts scene.

You’ve heard it boosts the local economy and aids in revitalizing low-income neighborhoods and faded commercial districts.

And gives your town a little p-zazz and ka-shay.

Darn tootin. The Arts have proven to be a useful destination enticement for visitors — visitors who supply revenue to your local shops, restaurants, lodging sites, parking meters. And you’ve also taken note of the scores of case studies demonstrating the significant role Arts have played in jump-starting and stabilizing genuine urban renewal throughout North America over the last three decades.

Let’s look at an average New Jersey municipality and see how they were able to get some Arts activity up and running.

Between 1950-60 Woodbridge Township in Middlesex County saw its population double from 35,000 to nearly 80,000, transforming a string of neighboring townlets into a densely-packed urban enclave that is now, with 99,000+ residents, the state’s 6th-largest municipality.

Woodbridge has a blue-collar labor history as a clay mining, brick-and-ceramics manufacturing, coal shipping, chemical processing center. It does not have a university or a major cultural institution like a large museum, plush performing arts center or professional orchestra or theatre company. Or Arts-devoted private foundation, Arts service organization or huge corporate benefactor.

Yet in the last three years Woodbridge Township has seen the following cultural initiatives emerge out of seemingly nowhere:

Music on Main Street ... Woodbridge Wednesdays ... Barron Arts Center's Nutz About Art Fest ... 10 Towns Sculpture Project ... Woodbridge Artisan Guild Co-op & Gallery ...Woodbridge Teen Idol ... Woodbridge Senior Idol ... New Horizons Band & Community Chorus ... International Dance Fest ... Woodbridge Community Youth Players ... Holiday Stroll ... Festival of Contemporary Immigration Writing ... Jazz &Sketch Night ... Woodbridge Brew Fest ... Woodbridge Chili Cookoff ... Historic Downtown Ghost Walk ... Woodbridge History Trail ... Woodbridge Farmers Market ... Avenel Community Day ... Earth Day Faire ...
And the Greenable Woodbridge Museum of the Future!

Add all of those to a solid base of culture-linked events already in existence over the years:
  • Mayor’s Summer Concerts 
  • Movies in the Park
  • St. James Street Fair
  • Main Street Mayfest
  • Waterfront Festival
  • Downtown Car Cruise
  • Civil War Living History Camp
  • India Day Parade
  • St. Patrick’s Parade
  • Barron Arts Center Holiday Train Show
  • PoetsWednesday
… and you’ve got an increasing number of local folks venturing out of their homes to mingle with curious out-of-towners dropping by to see what’s going on at Exit 11 – the fabled Traffic Crossroads of New Jersey no one has ever considered an Arts Crossroads of New Jersey, until maybe now.

While Woodbridge has yet to attained bonafide Arts Mecca status, the recent flurry of grass-roots Arts activity involving hundreds of residents and thousands of visitors certainly benefits the local economy. And it’s expanding.

Q. Hooray for Woodbridge. How do we get our local Arts scene started?

A. Recall that phrase above: “cultural initiatives emerge out of seemingly nowhere”. The seeds for those initiatives already existed in Woodbridge and likely exist in your town. The seeds are called Artists. They can lay fallow and invisible for years. Your task is to bring them into the light, feed them basic nutrients and get them to sprout.

Step 1Invite local Artists to meet each other, because most of them never have. Invite them to town hall where they start absorbing the idea that the municipality sees them as legitimate business people and useful stakeholders in the community’s future. Solicit their concrete ideas on how to make your town more Arts-filled and Arts-active.

Step 2. Have them form an ad hoc Local Arts Advisory Committee with the meetings chaired by someone from the mayor’s office who can guide discussion and add perspective on questions of zoning, municipal ordinances, future development trends, etc. Keep things loose. Articulate, motivated leaders will emerge.

Step 3. After everyone’s Arts wish lists have been aired, watch as new projects bubble up and take shape, gather steam and end up as new community events or even new Arts organizations. Ideas that gestated in individual minds for years will achieve solid form when a collective energy gets churning. Individual Artists who felt isolated will now feel empowered to bring their work to a more public sphere and contribute to the community.

Example:  in mid-2007, shortly after entering his first full term in office, Mayor John McCormac convened the Woodbridge Committee for the Arts. It was a diverse group of 30 or so Arts-involved people from the Township comprising a music store owner, sculptor, choral director, recording studio engineer, dance teacher, ceramicist, painter, digital animator, CD producer, theatre education director, photographer, graphic designer, jewelry maker, singer, poet, chef and more.

Within a few months from this chance assemblage there arose the two dozen Arts initiatives cited above. And those initiatives have generated their own spin-offs involving more residents, students and businesses.

Q. How do we find these Arts-involved people?

A. You take a thorough Arts Inventory that identifies every single Arts-related person, business or activity in the community no matter what their size or level of professionalism or commerciality.
Mayor McCormac directed staff to create a basic survey that identified local Artists and asked 15 questions about their work, career needs and ways they believed Arts could be promoted in Woodbridge Township. 

The survey was posted on the township web site, displayed in flyer form at municipal buildings, mailed to Arts teachers in the schools. Artists were also located via extensive googling, contacted by letter and email and asked to fill out the survey.

After a couple hundred surveys were returned, the Mayor brought in folks with solid academic cred: the National Center for Neighborhood and Brownfields Redevelopment at Rutgers University. They compiled the survey results and wrote up a cogent 64-page report that not only gave a snapshot of the Township’s current state of the Arts but analyzed future options for Arts-based redevelopment, needs of local Artists and organizations, viability of a cultural district, Arts promotion strategies and Arts education programs.

Q. Do we really need a 64-page academic report titled The Arts Community, Arts Village Development and Promotion of Arts in Woodbridge Township?

A. Such a report does 4 things: (1) it gives you a better handle on what your local Arts community is actually like in terms of resources and active members (2) it gets Artists in your community interested in being part of what you’re trying to get started (3) it’s the kind of Official Document that shows potential funders or development partners you’re serious about utilizing your local Arts as economic leverage; (4) it’s a way to begin letting the general community know you’ve got something in the works likely to bring economic benefits and recognition to town.

Q. Do we need major arts facilities to have a thriving Arts milieu?

A. No. Community-based Arts in the 21st century isn’t about Monodirectional Centralized Edifice Hierarchy. It’s about Multidimensional De-Centralized Content Diffusion … your task is to develop horizontal not vertical relationships among artists, arts venues and arts audiences … i.e., relationships that engage a large number of people as creators come in close contact with consumers.

Because Art doesn’t start with facilities. Art starts with programming. Or, Content, if we’re speaking the jargon of Our Modern World 2.0. Art comes from people not buildings. Buildings are Hardware; they disperse Art, but they don’t create it. If you’ve got Artists doing Art, the right spaces will appear and function as conduits for circulating Art.

However, having an established Arts “anchor” institution is a definite asset. You may already have such an anchor actively involved in fostering various forms of Arts in the community; this institution will be a valuable partner in your efforts to grow and spread Arts locally.

Woodbridge is fortunate to possess an excellent and versatile Arts anchor that is also a National Register of Historic Places site. The Barron Arts Center has functioned as the Township’s de facto arts center since 1977, offering a year-round schedule of exhibits, concerts, literary readings, films, theatre works, lectures, classes and workshops. Almost every program is admission free. Almost every program features local or New Jersey Artists.

The Barron’s acclaimed monthly PoetsWednesday series is the longest-running poetry series in the U.S. (since 1978) and has featured the cream of contemporary American poets along with an open mike segment for budding writers. The annual Holiday Train Display draws thousands of visitors from across the state and region, many of whom return for other events during the year. Though it isn’t geared to generate a large amount of earned revenue, the Barron Arts Center helps define Woodbridge Township’s Arts identity.

Q. If we don’t have an Arts anchor institution, or what we have is too limited in size or scope, where do we fit all this Art we’re cooking up?

A. Harness the awesome power of the Sustainability Mantra: recycle, re-use and re-purpose your existing public and private spaces.

* Woodbridge doesn’t have a dedicated space for large theatre productions. So the Woodbridge Community Youth Players present their plays at a school and an ethnic association bingo hall. If, as Shakespeare wrote, “all the world’s a stage” — then that stage can be just about anywhere you can rig up lights, sound and seating for the groundlings.

* Woodbridge doesn’t have a performing arts center, so the Music on Main Street series holds its concerts in a church sanctuary, a middle school auditorium and a downtown park also used for the Historic GhostWalk, Halloween Hayrides, Easter Egg Hunt and Civil War Living History Camp.

* The Senior Idol is held at Woodbridge Community Center, Teen Idol at a high school … Battle of the Bands and competitions for Best Dance Crew are at the Youth Center at Evergreen (a former grade school) … International Dance Fest occurs at a banquet hall that has featured trade shows, weddings and the Miss India USA pageant.

* The new visual arts co-op, the Woodbridge Artisan Guild, couldn’t afford a brand new building. So they opened a gallery in a former consignment clothing storefront off Main Street between a popular restaurant and a nail salon; their Holiday Sale Shop comes to seasonal life in a former shoe store.

* Greenable Woodbridge Museum of the Future isn’t tucked away in the woods; it’s in the Woodbridge Center Mall (2nd floor, JC Penney wing), where thousands of shoppers pass by weekly and no doubt benefit by taking a few minutes to ponder ways to Green their consumption.

Big anchor institutions are great because they provide a visible, year-round advertisement for local Arts, have professional, experienced staff and can help guide new partnerships for new Arts programming.
But you can still start growing your local Arts without one.

Q. Do we need a Local Arts Council?

A. At the start of your Arts development, no. But ultimately, it’s a very useful tool to help sustain and grow the Arts community. A Local Arts Council is in essence a marketing organization that promotes all Arts activity in your community — promotion geared both to local residents and outsiders. It should have a professional, paid staff and be a 501(c)(3) corporation that can serve as a grants applicant to bring funds to local Arts groups and Arts initiatives.

Q. Do we need Arts education programs?

A. In the short-term, Arts education programs are an excellent way to involve schools and thereby get more publicity and audience for your local Arts activities. Long-term, they lay the foundation for a strong future for Arts in your community by cultivating young Artists and future Arts audiences. Many teachers — even if they’re not employed specifically as Arts teachers — are Artists and will do what they can to facilitate collaborations between students and your Arts programming.

Q. How do we get the public to pay attention to this Arts stuff?

A. It helps if you have a written-down Arts Plan that states what the municipal government and partner groups hope to accomplish and how.

After the Woodbridge Committee for the Arts had met a few times and the Arts report from Rutgers was complete, Mayor McCormac created a 10-point Arts Plan that sought to implement many of the report recommendations and Committee goals. The 10 objectives put forth were modest, focusing on finding ways to develop more local Arts organizations to present more public Arts events and have more people attend them.

Even expressed as an outline, an Arts Plan serves as a benchmark to measure your progress in critical action areas. Three years later, each of the 10 points in the Woodbridge Township Arts Plan have been implemented, signaling the time is due for a fresh look at the next set of objectives.

Q. How much do we need to get the general public involved?

A. Ultimately, a lot. Visualize your successful local Arts community as a three-legged stool: Institutions-Audiences-Artists.

It’s a symbiotic triangle; one leg missing, no stool … one leg weak or unstable, stool is unusable. All elements must support each other, or you have nothing.

Yet, the truly fundamental interaction here (fundamental as in “foundation”) derives from the strength of the connection between local Audiences and Artists.

Community building isn’t a top-down exercise that can be installed or implanted; it rises from the ground up. Institutions are important in expanding local arts by providing resources, seed money, program guidance, facilities, outreach … but Artists and Audiences have to find each other at the most basic local level for a community Arts structure to evolve toward strong Institutions … no Institution can mandate this bond if it isn’t there.

As a municipal official representing the long-term interests of your residents (Audiences), you must make certain they are not only along for the ride but in the passenger seat helping navigate — even taking an occasional turn at the wheel.

Q. Can we recap all this?

A. Sure. Growing your Local Arts Scene boils down to Six Essential Ingredients:

1) municipal officials willing to offer support, direction and resources; most importantly, they serve as the means of introducing this concept to non-Arts residents and businesses

2) local Artists willing to extend their Arts activity to a more public, more collaborative level

3) flexible venues such as churches, schools, storefronts, restaurants that can accommodate Arts events in their space; contact the owner/operators of these spaces — they are often thrilled to have you do the work of bringing attention to their space

4) local business support from landlords who will cut a break on rent for galleries and performance space, restaurants and bars that offer event-related specials, merchant associations who cash-sponsor or donate in-kind to programs, etc.

5) community groups willing to provide volunteers and host events and come up with new ways to use Arts activity for their benefit

6) massive and continuous media outreach via news releases, flyers, ads, web and social media sites, e-blasts, tweets — simple, frequent outreach informing the public in your town and elsewhere about all this amazing Arts activity you’ve got.

Q. Where does #6 come from?

A. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but it better come from somebody and often, or your Arts growth will be maddeningly slow. Possibly the Arts Committee in its glorious ad hoc-ness can appoint a person or sub-committee to commit to handling what is in essence a marketing campaign for your efforts: writing and sending out releases, maintaining a web directory of local Artists and Arts events, making sure all your community Arts activities are known to your community Arts consumers by whatever publicity channels are available.

Q. Is that it?

A. There’s the Final Super-Essential Core Ingredient... so critical it goes beyond mere numbers: 

The unshakable Belief that 
our community’s quality of life 
benefits enormously when 

— more citizens interact in public 
— in ways that foster collaboration 
— and expand our understanding 

of what each of us can contribute 
to that shared quality of life.

Which is to say, participating in a vibrant local Arts scene can momentarily extract us from our private, cocooned worlds of television and online comment forums to actually converse with each other about what’s of importance in our community.

* Arts express our individuality and emphasize our similarity

* Arts let us walk in someone else’s moccasins and feel their pain and joy, enthusiasm and apprehension…

* Arts help disparate elements of a community connect and build something bigger than the sum of individual parts…

* Arts are a vehicle for articulating pressing community issues and reaching consensus on those issues …

* Arts can help municipal officials mobilize the community to move forward with necessary change.

Bottom Line:  when your community is starting to plan economic revitalization strategies, make sure the Arts have a place “at the table”.

In truth, Artists will be the ones who help you craft that table and set the groundwork for success.

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 Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D. is the Grants Officer for Woodbridge Township. He has taken part in organizing community Arts and non-profit programming ventures since 1973.