Oct 072014
Palace Theater Canton Arts District

Palace Theater Canton Arts District (Digital art by BZTAT)

Everywhere you turn these days there is an arts district. The word is out – if you have a declining downtown, develop an arts district to revive it.

Some cities have been strategic in this process, and some have done it in a half-hearted and haphazard way. Regardless of how it is happening, though, it is happening all over.

This should be a good thing for artists, right?

Yes and no.

It is a good thing because it brings attention and awareness to the arts and artists. Increased visibility is helpful in many regards, and the community awareness can energize artists in many creative ways. There is a fallacy, however, that more attention and awareness automatically leads to profitability and sustainability for artists.

It does not. In fact, in some ways, it can reduce profitability.

More people enjoying a community’s arts offerings does not necessarily increase patronage of the arts, where people are actively purchasing arts products on an ongoing basis. Donations towards arts organizations may increase, but that does not always translate to sustainable business for individual artists. In fact, the opposite can happen. There can be a plethora of arts offerings, but no significant financial reward for the artists, costing the community very little but the artists a lot. When there are numerous artists but few people who actually buy art or purchase tickets to performances in a community, the artists lose out.

Tom Wachunas, writer of ARTWACH and local arts critic in my home area of  Stark County, Ohio, sounded a warning call this week about the sustainability of the Canton Arts District, which by many standards, has been a very successful arts and business corridor partnership.

According to Tom, the Canton Arts District is in peril as a “a serious contender in the business of being a sustainable tourist destination through an enriching, relevant art gallery corridor” if the public’s awareness and investment in individual artists’ efforts is not increased.

I would agree with Tom – if that was the goal.

I am not certain that Canton and other cities truly expect their arts districts to become sustainable tourist destinations through enriching, relevant art gallery corridors. I suspect that the goal is more to bring interest and to increase activity to designated areas, and then transition the arts districts to entertainment districts, which are more easily sustained. Truthfully, that is already happening in Canton.

The reality is, arts districts are not necessarily about the arts. Arts districts are about bringing interest to blighted areas so that said areas can be redeveloped for economic benefit. That economic benefit is not necessarily for the artists who jazz the place up and make it interesting.

Arts districts are all about money, quite honestly, and that money does not necessarily fall into the hands of the artists who invest themselves in their communities.

Arts districts are developed as a step in the process of gentrification, a strategic plan of transitioning urban districts of declining property values towards wealthier residents and higher property values. It is a given in the gentrification process that artists who initially take advantage of low rents and “nowhere but up” standards will typically be forced out as property values increase.

That may seem like a cynical view, and I guess it is in some ways. It is a realistic view, in my opinion.

Having said that, I do not think that all is bleak for artists. Artists can position themselves to be taken advantage of, or they can position themselves to take advantage of the opportunities available to them from the process.

I prefer the latter.

The expectations created in artists through arts corridor developments can be wildly unrealistic. Still yet, if kept in perspective, artists can take advantage of opportunity while otherwise developing their careers for profitable sustainability.

I knew when I moved to downtown Canton in 2007, when the Canton Arts District was just being formed, that eventually I would leave. I knew that the opportunities that existed at that time were temporary, and I knew that the process of gentrification would eventually push me out. I had my idealism, and I fought the process. But I knew what was going on. (I did move out in 2013. I still maintain a presence with a small space in Second April Galerie, but my home is elsewhere.)

In those early days, I benefited from special project grants, public art commissions and early interest in purchasing art from the gallery district. I benefited from low rent from an exceptionally lenient landlord who gave me more chances than he probably should have done. Those opportunities are not as readily available now as they were when the district was new.

I am not going to lie – I do miss having those opportunities that used to be there.

Still yet, I never have relied solely on local gallery traffic to build my business as an artist. While I was involved in the development of the Canton Arts District, I was also building a global presence online, developing my brand and my stature as an artist in a much bigger community. I not only applied my creativity to my artistic works, I applied it to marketing and other aspects of building my business as well.

I am often amazed at how artists can be the vanguard of so many ideas and images, yet be so backward when it comes to monetizing their presence in the world of business. The world of business and the world of web technology is intimidating to many artists, and thus, they avoid it like the plague.

I tend to be curious about web technology, myself. But monetizing my creativity in a world of business? Yeah, that is tough for me. I recognize that it is is essential, though, and I am endeavoring to become more successful with it.

Artists cannot simply assume that others will create a demand for their artistic works and develop profitability for them. They must also recognize that the development of arts districts is not just for them.

Artists are generous people. We tend to care for our communities and we want to give in order to see our communities succeed. But we want to succeed ourselves, as well. In order to avoid the experience of being left behind and feeling taken advantage of, we need to evolve ourselves as the gentrification process takes hold. We need to recognize that we must put ourselves in the position of being relevant, and we need to develop our creativity around the ecology within which it exists. We need to accept that arts districts do not guarantee that people will purchase our creative works, so we must do more to ensure our survival as we contribute to our community’s culture.

How do we do that? Each artist needs to decide that for him or herself.

I am currently developing a plan for myself as I evolve and change with my local and global community. Stay tuned. I will be sharing more about that soon.

If you are an artist, how will you evolve? If you are not an artist, but want to see creative people thrive in your community, how can you help them evolve?

Are arts districts good for artists?

The answer is in the question.

Life is an Adventure!


Silver Linings in an Injured Rhinoceros

 Paradoxes, purposes and ponderances  Comments Off on Silver Linings in an Injured Rhinoceros
Sep 022014

Rhinoceros Sculpture Canton  Arts District For several years now, the Canton, OH Arts District has been home to a rhinoceros. Not a live one, but a sculptural one made from recycled tires.

The Rhino was created by artist Patrick Buckhor and was placed in the Arts District early in the redevelopment of Canton’s downtown. Public art was one of the primary steps in developing the Arts District.

It took a few years for the Arts District to become popular with the general public. Artists and arts enthusiasts have celebrated it from the beginning, but only recently has it grown in popularity with people not actively involved in arts activities.

An incident that occurred this week, however, demonstrated that, not only has it become popular, people have grown to love it as their own.

Someone vandalized the Rhino.

Rhinoceros Sculpture Canton  Arts District damagedIt’s not clear if this was a deliberate act. It could have been a drunk driver crashing into it or skateboarders using it as a launch (I’ve seen them try). Whatever happened, someone knocked it over with reckless disregard and caused it considerable damage.

Other artworks have been vandalized with little notice in Canton. I have had to repair some of my own pieces. But the damage to the Rhino did not go unnoticed.

Instead, a public outcry on social media has risen in response. Some community members have volunteered to fix it. Not only were people upset that an artwork was maliciously harmed, they took it as a personal insult. Someone hurt THEIR RHINO.

For a community to take such ownership of their public art is the lofty goal of every artist and every arts leader. Although I deplore the act of violence against the sculpture, I celebrate the community’s outpouring of support for the artwork.

Luckily, the Rhino was not damaged beyond repair. Repairs are planned this week by ArtsinStark and it will be on display in its regular spot at 4th St. NW and Cleveland Ave. for First Friday this week.

Well done, Canton. Although one fool may have acted maliciously, so many more have shown us what community is all about. That is every artist’s dream.

Life is an Adventure!


Why does Canton keep getting put on the bad list?

 Paradoxes, purposes and ponderances  Comments Off on Why does Canton keep getting put on the bad list?
Mar 282014
Stark County Courthouse Angels Canton OH Art by BZTAT

“Courthouse Angels” Digital Art by BZTAT

Media companies like to put out lists – best and worst lists. My home city, Canton, OH, has a way of getting put on the “worst” lists quite often, for some reason. When it happens, many of my friends who are part of efforts to revitalize Canton get pretty worked up.

They, and I, are typically quick to defend our city. The methodologies and agendas behind these lists are always suspect, and they rarely take into account that there are many positive opportunities in their target cities that could change things on a dime.

One of these lists came out this week from a previously little known (to the general public) real estate blog. The story claimed that Canton was America’s second most dangerous small city. They came to this conclusion based on crime statistics compared with similarly sized cities.

Normally, I would be jumping out of my skin to defend Canton. But last week, I heard a series of gun shots in my neighborhood. Yesterday, I saw a news report about a drive-by shooting just feet away from where I have spent hours trapping a feral cat colony for TNR. I hear reports DAILY of violent crimes occurring in Canton’s neighborhoods that never get resolved.

Canton DOES have a crime problem. I don’t know how it truthfully ranks with other cities, and putting it on a “worst list” certainly does nothing to help the problem. But ignoring the realities does not do anything to help it either.

I want to assure people that, in most respects, Canton is a safe city. The downtown Canton Arts District, in which I have participated in redevelopment efforts, is one of the safest and most enjoyable downtowns you will find in America. Canton has world class parks and one of the most notable public festivals in America around the annual Football Hall of Fame inductions.

Yet there are also good and decent neighborhoods that have been challenged in recent years by crime and blight. Home foreclosure has hit us hard, and slumlords have put previously well-cared-for properties into careless hands. Booming stereos cruise the streets at all hours, ensuring that NO ONE can live with any sense of peace in their own home.

These neighborhoods are not ghettos, but they are fast becoming that. The problem is, the majority of people living in these areas are good, law abiding citizens. Our state government’s efforts to make “smaller government” has led to significant funding decreases to cities, which means that cities like Canton cannot afford sufficient law enforcement. A lack of vision at all levels of government have left citizens to fend for themselves.

I get it. We do not want to draw attention to the problems, lest it will turn people away from investing in community improvement. I do not want anyone thinking Canton is a bad place to be. I have to be honest, though. We cannot change Canton if we do not do something about it’s crime problem.

If you care about Canton, please, keep talking up the positives. Keep doing what you can to make things better. But please, do not shy away from the fact that we need to DEMAND better for Canton. Tell our local, state, and federal leaders that we need resources and vision to fix what is wrong. Tell them that they need to do more, so that what is good gets us put on the “BEST” lists in the future.

Life is an Adventure!