This is the third of a series of Innovation Stories about the National Endowment for the Arts’s Our Town program. These inspiring stories highlight communities strengthening their neighborhoods through the arts and design across the United States.
To learn more about ArtsFwd’s partnership with the NEA, read the introductory post from Jason Schupbach (NEA’s Director of Design Programs).
How can a small city increase access to the arts and create opportunities for its local artists outside of traditional venues?
For a city with a well-developed park system, but with limited opportunities for local artists to present in those parks, the City of Roanoke developed a Parks and Arts program that commissions local artists to develop hands on visual art activities and performances for city parks. This opportunity connects residents with art — without expecting them to leave their neighborhood or travel to a museum in a cultural district. “Parks and Arts” addresses multiple objectives with a single program, broadening access to art while giving local artists needed access to commissions.
Roanoke, a city of 97,000 people in southwest Virginia, has long been an important area in the region’s industrial economy and is well linked within the area’s transportation infrastructure. Near the junction of Interstates 81 and 581, freight rails wind their way through the city, just as the Roanoke River does. Along the river and throughout the city, parks animate the urban landscape. With 60 parks and four sections of greenways, the city has a large number of open space resources.
However, like many cities, Roanoke does not have the money it needs to maintain all of its parks, and a few are now perceived as uninviting to residents. For the city parks, this financial need is exacerbated by the fact that Roanoke has seen its economy slide in recent decades. As the region’s industrial activity slowed down, there developed many pockets throughout the city where communities live with pressing economic challenges. More than half of city residents live at 200% of the poverty level or less. “Many families believe that access to music and art is beyond their means,” says Susan Jennings, Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Roanoke.
Even though there was a lot of physical space dedicated to parks in Roanoke, the parks were not always integrated into the day-to-day lives of residents. Many parks didn’t have the equipment or programming needed to support active engagement, and so they remained underutilized. The arts community had very limited access to economic opportunity as well, and their public work was often perceived as something for more prosperous communities, rather than being a part of smaller neighborhoods and accessible to everyone. Collectively, there was a need to make the case for the arts as an integral component of community life, and to give artists more opportunity to create and exhibit new works in Roanoke.