Sunday, November 4, 2007

Arts in the City: Community Development Means More than Just Business

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with several local leaders who are working on community development, mostly with a focus on attracting new businesses to Youngstown. But community development is not just about business. A vibrant community must also have functional networks of active citizens, a sense of its own identity, and a lively cultural life. And here in the Mahoning Valley, we have a good start on all three, perhaps most especially on cultural life. The local arts community is incredibly varied and active. While that’s been true for the past century, these days we see a new generation of artists and arts organizers, bringing new energy and new projects to the Mahoning Valley. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with one of the leaders of that new generation, Brooke Slanina. She’s Vice President of the Board for the Oakland Center for the Arts, but more important, she’s an energetic, creative spirit who understands both why the arts matter and how hard it will be to ensure the long-term vitality of our diverse arts community.

One of the challenges that Brooke and her colleagues face is, ironically, the successful arts history of the area. Because of that, we have several active local community theaters, but they also compete for money, audiences, volunteers, and attention. We saw dramatic evidence of the problem earlier this season when several different theaters put on versions of Beauty and the Beast. No doubt, all were good productions, but I’d bet that none got as large an audience as it might have if it were the only production of that show. There may be similar overlaps among visual arts venues. I think the music community does a better job of coordinating its activities, perhaps because of overlaps of personnel and management in both popular and classical music.

We need the arts to ensure a vibrant future for the Mahoning Valley, so we need artists and arts organizers to work together. In our interview, Brooke talks about several ideas that are just getting going. If those organizing efforts can take off, then those of us who are arts consumers (rather than creators) have much to look forward to. One starting place to learn more about the arts in Youngstown is the CityArts website.

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