Sunday, July 23, 2006


(News-Herald July 20) Joann Wheeler may be the world’s first Art Champion. In many places it’s an award. But only in Oil City is it an actual job.
I visited Joann in her office last week, located in the Transit Building, where an assortment of arts initiatives have lived and died over the years. It’s a reminder that, here in Venangoland, our relationship with the arts is a difficult one. In many ways, the arts thrive here. We probably have more performing groups per person than most places in the country.
At the same time, the arts don’t seem to be part of our regional personality in the same way as, say, sports. The arts in Oil City are like the ballet in Pittsburgh—respectable in its own way, but not among the top twelve things you think of when you think of that place.
Arts endeavors in Venangoland can fall prey to a couple of problems. We suffer a bit too often from amateur hour in the arts. Artistic amateurism is one pitfall—if I just sit and think artsy thoughts while slinging paint at a canvas, well, then, I’m an artist. Talent and hard work are unimportant as long as my heart’s in the right place. It’s a sweet, naïve attitude, but we wouldn’t tolerate it in doctors or lawyers.
Organizational amateurism can be just as bad. It’s just the arts, so lets whip something up around the kitchen table and budget a buck and a half. It’s not enough to be interested; you have to know how to get things done and be able to judge what sort of things need doing. That’s just as true in the arts as it is in a mall or a hospital.
Talking with Joann was encouraging. First, she has some background in the real world. She has worked, among other things, helping to connect business and industry with training for their employees. And she’s worked off in the big city where a bit more expertise is required. To top it off, she is a lifelong artist as well.
Her vision for the arts initiative seems practical and realistic. And really, the whole Oil City arts initiative seems like a good response to the usual questions.
We need more people in the area—what resources do we have to draw folks here, and what sorts of folks could we draw?
Our resources are beautiful natural surroundings and quality of life. You can choose from different flavors of small-town life (traditional small towny Franklin; grittier, more urbannish Oil City; rural Seneca) or go country. Cost of living is low; housing costs are stunningly cheap (the average cost of a home in Venangoland wouldn’t make a down payment in most big markets)—as long as you have a job. And, unlike the rural West, you can have all that and still be a stone’s throw from a couple of major cities.
So. We’re looking for people who want to live cheaply in a small town setting surrounded by the natural beauty. And it would be best if they brought their own jobs with them.
That describes several different types of people, including young artists.
We have had artists come into the area before. Some of them have failed because they had a lousy business plan. You can’t use the Big Fish in a Small Pond plan—there’s not enough water in the little pond to keep you alive. The artists can live here, but Venangoland will never be their main market. “You can’t make a living selling things at Oil Heritage Week” says Joann. But to live and paint in Oil City, keep your overhead low, market yourself on the net, and make regular trips to a gallery in Pittsburgh to sell your stuff—that’s entirely doable.
Joann is refreshingly realistic about this stuff. Financial incentives are a nice idea, she says, but you can’t live on incentives, and the taxing bodies here are already hurting too much to give up more money.
And while there are places out there that do this sort of thing, Joann is also quick to note that this “has to grow out of what the community is” and not be simply modeled after some other place.
There will be other challenges, not the least of which is that Venangoland can be somewhat less than welcoming to New Folks who are Different. And for people who want to see the county turned around economically by one big grand slam, this isn’t going to be it. The economic effects won’t be enormous, and they won’t be quick. But if the arts champion fills a few more houses in Oil City with people who bring money into Venangoland, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

No comments:

From my Flickr