Lebanon Weighs Future as Arts Hub

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2018 12:04:55 AM
Modified: 4/2/2018 12:04:55 AM

Lebanon — When City Councilor Karen Zook pictures a future for downtown Lebanon, she envisions public art taking center stage.

In a perfect world, she said, people would walk among sculptures on the Lebanon Mall, view new murals on the sides of downtown businesses and take in seasonal designs adorning city fountains.

“I want Lebanon to be the public art capital of New Hampshire,” Zook, who founded the nonprofit Art City NH and was recently elected to the City Council, said in an interview last week.

That vision is inching closer to reality, beginning with the creation of a city task force that’s charged with finding opportunities for civic art to flourish.

The City Council voted unanimously last week to form its Task Force on Arts and Culture. The nine-member group, which will be made up of local officials and arts organizations, is expected to work over the next six months to plan an art-filled future in Lebanon.

The idea for such a group began with talks between downtown’s existing arts organizations, according to Trip Anderson, executive director of the AVA Gallery and Art Center.

The gallery, Lebanon Opera House and nearby Upper Valley Music Center have all discussed ways to promote the arts scene around Colburn Park, he said, including the creation of a cultural district.

But those groups cannot coordinate all of the city’s arts efforts on their own, Anderson said. They’ll also need the city’s planning and recreation expertise, he said.

“There’s this long list of arts and cultural institutions that surround and use Colburn Park,” Anderson said.

Each contributes to Lebanon’s reputation as a hub for art in the Upper Valley, Anderson added.

A potential cultural district — or commission — could weave all their efforts into one, including the promotion and installation of public art, Anderson said.

“The concept has legs at this point. And really, the Arts and Culture Task Force is just kind of formalizing the work that’s been done,” he said.

Mayor Sue Prentiss said she presented the concept for the task force to fellow councilors after meeting with Lebanon’s art community, including Anderson.

“They were all approaching me and saying ‘Hey, we think there’s an opportunity to coordinate these activities more, find the intersection of arts, culture and government,’ ” she said.

Prentiss was also influenced by public art efforts elsewhere. Driving through communities, such as Salem, Mass., she saw utility boxes and municipal property hosting local works of art.

After some research, Prentiss said, she came to the conclusion that local arts — both public and private — provide many communities with economic benefits.

“When people go to a show at the Opera House, they’re eating at Three Tomatoes (Trattoria) or they’re eating at Salt hill (Pub),” she said.

Arts and cultural institutions both contribute to a city’s economic vitality and provide jobs, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

The group’s most recent report found that New Hampshire’s nonprofit arts and culture industry takes in $62 million annually, and is responsible for nearly 3,500 full-time jobs.

In the greater Portsmouth, N.H.-area, people spend about $30 million on cultural institutions yearly, which amounts to 1,200 jobs, the group found.

That Seacoast community formed its own blue ribbon panel on arts in 2002, which resulted in the creation of ARTspeak, the city’s cultural commission.

The group serves as a resource, promotes and markets Portsmouth’s art and cultural programs, according to Mike Teixeira, ARTspeak’s president.

“It’s a vital bridge that needs to happen between cultural members and the city,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday.

On the public arts front, ARTspeak members help facilitate murals and other works on city property, setting guidelines and determining which projects move forward.

The group has also developed a program that helps private property owners connect with local artists who might be interested in creating murals and sculptures.

While all of its efforts benefit Portsmouth, Teixeira said, funding for ARTspeak can be a challenge. The commission works hard to secure donations and grants without starving other arts groups of their funding, he said.

If a similar group can be successful in Lebanon, both public art and downtown institutions can benefit, Prentiss predicted.

“There’s an opportunity for Lebanon here to take the lead and we have incredible resources,” she said. “We have gems within our own community that are just doing tremendous work.”

Lebanon has considered both increasing public art and forming its own arts commission several times, but those efforts had been met with limited success.

In 2005, the city secured grant funding to form a committee that explored ways to bolster civic art. After several months of work, the group called for the creation of a walking tour of Lebanon, an arts district and history museum at the Soldiers Memorial Building downtown.

The group also considered setting aside 1 to 2 percent of Lebanon’s capital improvement budget for public art.

But they were ultimately dissuaded from recommending taxpayer money contribute to the effort, said Saskia Reinholt, who led the 2005 effort and now owns the Maine cultural planning firm Reinholt Consulting LLC.

Reinholt said the committee’s crowning achievement was the inclusion of a “community design and civic art” section of Lebanon’s 2012 Master Plan.

The plan calls for creation of a “Commission for Civic Arts,” which would choose, evaluate and promote civic art.

Looking back, Reinholt said, the Master Plan was ahead of its time. Only in the last decade or so have cities begun to recognize the importance that art and cultural programs play within local economies, she said.

“It’s nice that the seed was planted early and is starting to grow,” Reinholt said.

City Councilor Clifton Below said he’s supporting the new task force partially because of the master plan and because of his own appreciation of public art.

“It’s an important part of our city’s master plan that hasn’t received that much attention,” he said. “This will give it a focus.”

Although he enjoys art while traveling, Below said it’s possible to create good works locally.

He pointed to a sculpture in New Orleans created using Hypertherm torches as an example of art that could be replicated in Lebanon.

“It would be really neat to have some public art that’s been created with a tool that’s locally available,” he said.

Prentiss, the mayor, said the city will soon be recruiting residents to serve on the new task force.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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