How Can Artists Transform a Town?

By John Delconte, Arts Extension Service Instructor

I recently met with artist/documentary filmmaker Serena Kovalosky over coffee at a warm coffee shop just outside of Saratoga, NY. The shop had a gas fireplace set in the center of a seating area with comfortable chairs that made it all the more inviting for a brainstorming session on a cold day in December.

Serena and I got together to talk about our shared interest in creative placemaking. She has participated in several arts-led community development scenarios—the kind we discuss in the UMass AES Creative Economy and Placemaking class. Serena lived in an artist loft in the vibrant artist community of St-Henri in Montreal until artists were forced out of the neighborhood by condominium developers in 2004. She returned to upstate New York and put her talents to work in the region as co-founder and organizer of the Open Studios of Washington County in the northeastern part of New York’s Capital District region. The biennial event attracts cultural tourism to this rural area and has grown to bring in $100,000 in art sales during the two-day weekend. Serena knows through personal experience how artists and their work can shape the physical, social, and economic character of places.

During our chat, Serena wondered what could be done to improve the creative economy of Whitehall, NY, where she grew up, without it becoming too gentrified so that artists are displaced. The town is struggling financially and is looking for ways to increase its tax base. Whitehall does not have significant employers other than a nearby prison. Town officials are considering bringing in a controversial waste-to-energy plant in what seems like a last-chance attempt to bring jobs and tax revenues to the town. We spoke about other potential opportunities for the town, such as the fact that it is at the midpoint of the north/south route of the Empire State Trail, which will stretch from New York City to the Canadian border, passing through Whitehall. It could therefore serve as a trail town for bikers, playing a role similar to Damascus, VA, for the much longer Appalachian Trail. The 2200-mile Appalachian Trail traces the nation’s eastern mountain ridge from Georgia to Maine. Damascus, where half of the town’s businesses are trail-related, hosts a Trail Days 3-day festival to pull hikers off the trail who are making the 6-month journey.

Serena is Canadian-American. Her father was from the Province of Quebec. She speaks French Canadian, which, she explained, is quite different than the French spoken in France. It was obvious that she had a lot of pride in her ancestry as she relayed the history of the French diaspora into North America.

I knew a little about that from teaching world regional geography. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, England took over all of France’s colonial possessions in North America. This was a bloody world war, and we might forget the level of animosity that was felt between these two countries. This tension carried into the American colonies’ Revolutionary War with England, where France helped turn the tide against England. This history explains why some French, particularly in the Canadian maritime provinces, became outcasts in English-controlled Canada. Many emigrated and found refuge in the United States, France’s new ally. Still, the United States was culturally English, and, like many immigrants, the French colonists were not encouraged to hold onto their language and other cultural expressions, at least in New York and New England.

Hints of French culture tease us. A motorist driving up the Northway through New York State to Canada can sense that they are nearing Quebec as town names and road signs suddenly appear in French as well as in English.

I wondered: are any French festivals or museums in the Whitehall area that celebrate the French legacy? Perhaps Whitehall could serve as a focal point for some of the French art and cultural history in northern New York and New England.

Whitehall’s consideration of inviting a controversial plant into town reminded me of a similar case in the town of Montague, Massachusetts. Montague’s forward-thinking leadership turned down a garbage incinerator planned for the center of Tuners Falls (a village in Montague) and instead focused on adding more affordable housing. It was a radically different style of thinking that focused on preserving architecture while making sure there were available living options for all of its citizens. Meanwhile, Montague’s cultural agency, RiverCulture, had been proactively leveraging their art and culture to create a town buzz that is attracting new residents and businesses. These types of decisions, perhaps ironically, have attracted new investment, such as an apple cidery, which is a much more environmentally cleaner and socially acceptable alternative than an incinerator. Turners Falls appears to be turning the corner, and Whitehall might be able to learn from them to create their own Renaissance. These types of stories support creative thinking, and encourage other town planners to tap the arts as drivers of their economy as longer term, clean endeavors, and give others the opportunity to look at what is special about the place that they call home. Studying case studies like these show how artists and other creative thinkers embedded into the creative economy can help attract dollars into a community while simultaneously improving its social fabric through specific projects. The process of using art and culture to improve the social and physical character of places is known as creative placemaking.

Serena, as a visual artist, filmmaker, arts administrator, and a former marketing professional in the travel industry—with a passion for her hometown—seems well positioned to use her talent and experiences to explore how the arts could be part of an alternative solution to help transform Whitehall into a vibrant community.

In Creative Economy and Placemaking, we’ll use examples like this to show how the arts and creativity have the potential to play critical roles in making places better. Students will critically analyze an existing creative economy or creative placemaking project, or, build a plan or project from scratch in a community of their choosing. There are many plans to choose from because these topics have been looked upon as a way to save post-industrial cities over the last 20 years. For existing plans and projects, you’ll look for evidence for how effective they are in strengthening economies and communities, or, you’ll apply the best practices you’ll learn from other towns and cities to create vibrant places where people want to live, work, play, and perhaps above all, create. By the close of the semester, students will leave with a knowledge of how to use the principles of creative economies and placemaking, so that you can be a part of the conversation to transform a community, like Serena hopes to do in Whitehall.