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Explore the Creative Side of Pennsylvania

Here, residents think outside the gallery walls to promote the arts.

By Kelly Huth on July 2, 2022

ArtQuest Center in Bethlehem, PA
ArtQuest Center

The arts have always been a part of everyday life for Pennsylvanians. Today, towns and cities across Pennsylvania are transforming public spaces into outdoor galleries, weaving the arts into the fabric of their communities and offering cultural diversity that attracts visitors and sparks a sense of pride in residents.

Sarah Merritt, director of Creative Communities for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, says many communities across the state are using art to tell their stories, with some unveiling creative, inclusive ways to lift up the voices of area residents.

In Meadville, for example, The Arc of Crawford County, which promotes and protects those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and supports their inclusion and participation in the community, is turning a vacant lot into greenspace, with programming for the community.

“What makes a project enriching is when the art is community-driven, community-informed and when community members are part of the process,” Merritt says. “When that ownership takes place, it takes it to a whole other level.”

The Beasley Building Mural by artist Michael Webb in downtown Philadelphia
Jeff Adkins

Uniting Communities, Sparking Change

Public art can unite residents, help them find common ground and promote inclusion.

Mural Arts Philadelphia, for example, has turned the city into what the organization calls the world’s largest outdoor art gallery, with more than 4,000 murals.

“But we don’t just beautify – we empower, as well,” says Chad Eric Smith, director of communications and brand management for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

“Art ignites change. We’re tethering the paint on the wall to real social change.”

Chad Eric Smith, Mural Arts Philadelphia

Mural Arts runs The Guild, a restorative justice program that offers paid positions to justice-impacted individuals to teach job skills. And its Color Me Back program hires those in need who earn wages as they work toward financial security.

Mural Arts is involving community members in a number of other ways, as well. For example, they can submit ideas and paint alongside muralists on paint days. The organization also offers tours and events and works with other communities to develop their own socially engaged art programming.

Smith notes the words of Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, “‘Art is like oxygen – it should be everywhere and for everyone.’”

Celebrating Unique Art in Pennsylvania

Another example of a unique space where the arts come into play is the Karl Stirner Arts Trail in Easton. “It’s a museum you can visit 24/7,” Merritt says of the 1.6-mile arts trail filled with kinetic and musical sculptures, art installations and community-driven programming.

Norah Johnson, director of external affairs and public awareness for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, adds that some areas like Grove City are weaving art into their placemaking efforts.

The Pointing the Way program at George Junior Republic, a private, nonprofit residential treatment community that provides academic and vocational training for at-risk youth, allows students to create metal sculptures to mark public parking areas.

SteelStacks in Bethlehem, PA, converted a former steel plant into a 10-acre arts campus.

Celebrating History

Julie Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, says communities are incorporating history and relics of their industrial past into cultural experiences.

Take for instance ArtsQuest’s SteelStacks campus in Bethlehem. The 10 acres where Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces once powered America’s industries and helped shape skylines across the country are now home to an arts and cultural campus.

SteelStacks features live music, comedy and film at the ArtsQuest Center, arts education at the neighboring Banana Factory, and festivals such as Musikfest, which welcomes around a million music fans annually.

Fitzpatrick says this awe-inspiring industrial castle “taps into the history of the community – who we once were and who we are today.”

GoggleWorks in Reading, PA
Chris Kendig

A Gaggle of Goggles

In Reading, the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts transformed a former safety goggles factory into an interactive arts center. The space features studios for woodworking, glass, metalsmithing, printmaking and ceramics as well as gallery space, dance and music studios, and a theater.

Plus, the Center for Metal Arts in Johnstown converted a former steel factory into a space where individuals can study blacksmithing. “It can be really inspiring for residents to see new uses for existing assets,” Johnson says.

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