Arts Advocacy – Not Just in the “Big City”

This is a story about how two DC-based arts organizations – Artomatic and Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA) – and their respective leadership and volunteers came together to make a difference in the predominantly rural community of Jefferson County, West Virginia.

According to Artomatic’s website,

“Artomatic began in 1999 in the historic Manhattan Laundry building in Washington, D.C. A dozen or so artists originally toured the empty building and within a month, 350 artists had cleaned, lit, painted and presented artwork in its 100,000 square feet. Over 20,000 visitors attended the first Artomatic over six weeks. … [It] creates community, builds audience and expands economic development by transforming available space into a playground for artistic expression.”

WALA began in 1983 as a collaborative effort to meet the needs of artists and fulfill a mission to serve artists’ legal needs. To accomplish this, WALA

“[P]rovides access to education, advocacy and legal services through workshops and seminars, legal clinics and pro-bono referral services for creatives and cultural organizations”

and counts amongst its attorney base more than 350 of Washington, DC’s top lawyers and law firms who participate in their legal services programs as volunteers, according to its website.

In 2012, Cynthia Gayton, a volunteer attorney for WALA and a speaker at two Artomatic events, received a call from Ginny Fite, formerly the president of the Arts and Humanities Alliance (Aha!) of Jefferson County, about an Art Walk Gayton organized for the neighboring communities of Bolivar and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Fortunately, Fite caught Gayton at just the right time – minutes after exiting the Dupont Circle Metro station after having seen the 2012 Artomatic event in Crystal City, Virginia. They spent some time discussing Artomatic’s history as well as its jury-free and “anyone can play” format and considered whether it was something that would work in Jefferson County, WV. Gayton agreed to contact George Koch, and Artomatic Founder and Chair Emeritus, about what would need to happen to bring Artomatic to a county 60 miles away from the District of Columbia. Gayton spoke with Koch soon after, and he agreed to participate in a preliminary discussion. A meeting with Koch, Gayton and the Alliance’s leadership, including Ginny Fite and Debbie Piscitelli, Executive Director of the Harpers Ferry Historical Association and former president of Aha!, was held, leading to several more discussions. Encouraged, Fite took the reins and proceeded to organize, along with many supportive members and sponsors of the arts community in Jefferson County, a month-long Artomatic (called Artomatic@Jefferson) event on U.S. 340 between Charles Town and Harpers Ferry in October 2013.

Gayton, who was on the Artomatic@Jefferson Steering Committee and responsible for the event’s adult education programming, contacted Maggie Gladson, WALA’s Legal Services Director, to see if WALA would be interested in supporting the event by sponsoring two programs from its Creative Entrepreneurs education series. Vance Levy, WALA’s Arts Ambassador and Education Director, was instrumental and a key asset in bringing the request to WALA volunteers to participate in the event as well as subsequently promote it. John Mason, WALA Board President and Chair of the Education Committee agreed to conduct a class entitled “Copyright/ Trademark Protection and Use” and Gayton conducted another class called “Tax Strategies for Creative Entrepreneurs” during the first two Saturdays of Artomatic@Jefferson.

The Artomatic@Jefferson event, according to news reports, attracted upwards of 4,000 visitors, and was a success by all accounts. Jefferson County itself has a population of only 53,498, so attendance was the equivalent of about 7% of the county’s population.

Due the event’s success, Charles Town Mayor, Patty Smith, was moved to investigate an “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts starting in November 2013. Mayor Smith applied for the grant which resulted in a $50,000 award to Charles Town in July 2014. According to the July 16, 2014 edition of The Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer’s Advocate, Mayor Smith said of the award, “It’s exciting – a giant step forward. … The goal is to have more art functions in town, to draw more local citizens and to bring in more tourism, too. Art is a big tourism attraction.” The grant will be used in part to create a “Washington Heritage District” which, in turn, is intended to make the town a destination for the arts, in addition to culture and history. Also, according to The Spirit, which published Mayor’s 4-point plan for the grant money, Smith said “Artomatic[@Jefferson] has such a heavy demand, by both artists petitioning to participate and the public, that it must be [in a larger space].” At least two downtown Charles Town locations are being considered for a future Artomatic@Jefferson event.

Stephen Skinner, an attorney born and raised in Charles Town, West Virginia and a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates said:

“The NEA grant signals that the arts are a critical component of development and culture in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.”

This success dovetails nicely with the goals of a District of Columbia July 16, 2014 publication entitled “Creative Economy Strategy for the District of Columbia”. In the accompanying press release, four economic growth sectors were included in the economic vision for the District: “1) Arts and Heritage, 2) Information and Technology, 3) Culinary Arts and 4) Professional Services.” Mayor Vincent Gray, in his letter to DC citizens, said that once the strategy is implemented, it “will contribute to the District’s commitment to create 100,000 jobs and generate $1 billion in new tax revenue.” The letter continues on to say:

“No city or enterprise can survive for long heralding the victories of the past or sustaining old economic archetypes that no longer apply in a technology-driven society. Instead, we must look toward the future with a vision for how best to transform for the 21st century. The Creative Economy Strategy articulates such a vision for the District, ensuring our economy remains competitive today and in the future.”

This vision and accompanying strategy extends not only to the artists and arts advocates in the District of Columbia, but through the efforts of Artomatic and WALA, goes further into neighboring regions whose fortunes are influenced by DC’s success.

It is not often that pro bono attorneys, or any volunteers for that matter, get to hear “the rest of the story” after they organize, speak, teach, or provide advice. Volunteers make a difference, and due to their efforts, a new arts-focused community is becoming a reality. Thank you.

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