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Our quest to become a ‘City of the Arts’

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Can Rochester be a “City of the Arts”? Should it be? Is it already?

Do we even know what a City of the Arts is?

A discussion about Rochester and the arts has been brewing for months, spurred in part by the deliberations over Midtown’s Parcel 5. But the issue is much larger than a proposal for a single new building. And fortunately, last week a discussion on the broader issue started to take shape. As City Council member Elaine Spaull puts it: What does it take to be a real City of the Arts?

Becoming a real City of the Arts will take more than buildings - as important as buildings are. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Becoming a real City of the Arts will take more than buildings - as important as buildings are.
City Council’s Arts and Culture Committee, which Spaull chairs, invited representatives of a variety of local arts organizations to attend a meeting to talk about their individual needs and the needs of the larger arts community. A good number of them showed up – Geva, the Eastman School, Downstairs Cabaret, Rochester City Ballet, the Rochester Latino Theater, the Jazz Festival, The Strong, RBTL, WXXI, and others – and they were just a fraction of Rochester’s deep, diverse arts community.

The discussion, which lasted about an hour and a half, was pretty freewheeling, touching on everything from the need for additional performance space for small arts groups to the struggle to attract younger audiences. The big common thread, though, was a plea for help: money and advocacy. And there was a lot of support for strengthening the non-profit Arts and Cultural Council, which has been on life-support for months but now, fortunately, is rebuilding.

In conversations in the days following the meeting, both Eastman School dean Jamal Rossi and Geva artistic director Mark Cuddy agreed: A strong Arts and Cultural Council is crucial. So is local government support, for the Arts and Cultural Council and for the arts as a whole – “not only with words but financially,” Rossi said.

Some cities have set up ways to provide regular funding for the arts – requiring 1 percent of publicly funded new construction and development to be set aside for the arts, for instance.

Mark Cuddy also brought up another idea raised at the Council committee meeting: an arts master plan. And he referred me to Boston’s 10-year arts and culture master plan, called Boston Creates.

Boston’s plan has five “broad goals,” said a Boston Globe report published when Boston Creates was announced last year: “creating ‘fertile ground’ for the arts in Boston, keeping artists in the city, integrating the arts into ‘all aspects of city life,’ collaboration among a variety of institutions, and promotion of cultural opportunities in historically underserved communities.”

Among the initiatives proposed under those broad goals: a percent-for-art program that would use public money to help fund public art; creating affordable housing for low-income artists; increasing city funding for the arts; making space available in underused buildings for small arts groups; and providing funding to boost arts education in public schools.

Boston’s non-profit community foundation was partnering with two private foundations to provide grants to small dance and theater companies.

Rochester’s arts and artists need similar support. The arts can’t support themselves. We’ve said for years that we’re a City of the Arts, and I think we have the ingredients to be one. Discussing this with me earlier this week, Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, said Rochester is fortunate in having a “constellation of unique venues, each with its own personality.” We also have a constellation of unique arts offerings, each with its own personality, drawing its own audience.

But to really be a City of the Arts will take more than words, more than buildings, large and small – as important as buildings are. Rochester will have to adopt a philosophy similar to Boston’s – and find the public and private money to make it a reality.

Last week’s City Council committee meeting could be a start – if public officials and arts groups are willing to follow through.

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