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Rustbelt to Artist Belt

Regional Arts Commission hosts national conference of artists & community developers

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April 25, 2012
More than 200 people from across the United States – and a handful from other countries – gathered in St. Louis to discuss and share ideas about community arts and how the arts can be used to create positive social change.

The Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission (RAC) recently hosted a national conference called "Rustbelt to Artist Belt: At the Crossroads Art-Based Community Development" at the Chase Hotel and Conference Center.

The event brought two separate conferences together for the first time. The "Rustbelt to Artist Belt" conference, which has been held before in Cleveland and Detroit, focuses on how to revitalize industrial cities by integrating the efforts of artists and community developers.

"At the Crossroads: A Community Arts and Development Convening" was created by St. Louis' Regional Arts Commission in 2010 as the first national conference on community arts, which encompasses a wide range of initiatives by artists and art organizations in partnership with human service agencies, and community organizers and developers designed to effect positive social change.

"I believe St. Louis is among the leaders of this field we call community arts," said Jill McGuire, who serves as the executive director of the Regional Arts Commission. "Community arts is about rebuilding and building healthy, vibrant communities using the arts and the creative powers that we have. So, this conference is about renewal, sharing new ways to build communities, building partnerships and collaborations, and finding new resources to do this kind of community building."

Roseann Weiss, who runs the CAT Institute and is RAC's director of community art programs and public art initiatives, said the conference was born out of the idea that artists can – and do – influence the communities they live in, but they can't do it alone. That's why the conference puts artists in the same room as architects, developers, policy makers, community activists, social workers and others who can influence change.

"It's about getting people to understand each other's language, because sometimes they don't," Weiss said. "Partnership and collaboration is the key."

From left: Linda Nance, Deborah Stoddard and Andrew Raimist perform a beat poetry styled piece titled “Meditations on Ghost Structures” during the fourth annual Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference. photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
Melissa Tan from Singapore said that's what drew her to the conference.

"We were quite excited by the idea where people of multiple disciplines could come together," said Tan, who serves on the National Arts Council of Singapore. "The CAT Institute is encouraging collaborations and building for the long term of St. Louis and it's very, very inspirational."

After attending a number of the conference workshops, Tan said she has several ideas she wants to take back to Singapore.

"There's been a lot of learning for us in terms of ways of thinking and a lot of people (in St. Louis) we could continue conversations with," she said.

St. Louis resident Is'Mima Nebt'Kata, who is a visual artist, tribal dancer and educator, said she is inspired by the coming together of community arts ideas.

"We all need fuel for our fire," she said. "This helps me plug into the pulse of the future of all disciplines of art and let you know what's out there."

Nebt'Kata, who lives in North County, also believes the conference shows others what St. Louis is about.

"It opens the door for people to visit St. Louis and see what our city has to offer," she said. "Maybe it will inspire people who have had success in other communities to come and plant their seed in the St. Louis soil."

Several St. Louis artists spoke about their community arts successes at the conference. Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, and Juan William Chavez, artist, cultural activist and founder of the Northside Workshop, discussed their collaboration transforming a historic brick building into an art space that is dedicated to cultural and community issues in Old North St. Louis, which is a 249-acre neighborhood just north of the Arch.

"People are skeptical, but revitalization is happening," Thomas said, showing photo after photo of restored and rehabilitated buildings in the neighborhood. "Hope has returned to Old North."

It's not just that the buildings look good again – they've attracted new businesses and led to other changes including the addition of a community garden, farmer's market, neighborhood grocery store and more, Thomas said.

Chavez is fostering a sense of community by hosting activities such as snow cone workshops for children, putting together a neighborhood cook book and creating the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary. Launched in 2010, the bee sanctuary is a proposal for the City of St. Louis to transform the urban forest where the Pruitt-Igoe housing development once stood into a public space that cultivates community through urban agriculture. Drawing parallels between the dwindling population of bees and shrinking cities, the project presents an opportunity to re-start the conversation about urban abandonment and creative strategies for addressing it, according to Chavez.

Another conference workshop called "Meditation on gHOSTstructures" focused on decaying or "ghost" structures in St. Louis, and community revitalization and neighborhood renewal. With one in five St. Louis addresses currently vacant, the city cannot ignore the issue any longer, panelists said.

"We all have a civic duty to address this issue," said Nat Zorach of The Handbuilt City, a St. Louis-based investment cooperative. "We need to get more people involved in the process."

Lisette Dennis, grants and volunteer manager for the Regional Arts Commission, encouraged artists to get involved in their neighborhoods.

"Get on a committee in your neighborhood – we need so many more artists on these committees with non-artists because those are where the decisions are being made," she said. "We need to get on those committees so we can make our communities look the way we want. Our voices need to be heard."

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