Entertainment & The Arts

Arts play vital, growing role in community life

ALICE FULD

The arts, long an important component of local life, have become in recent years a significant factor in downtown renewal, both in bricks-and-mortar terms and in drawing all sorts of people downtown.

Consider the transformation of Keene’s Colonial Theatre from moribund eyesore to a vibrant performance venue in the heart of downtown.

Restored through the efforts of a group of community activists who enlisted the eager participation of numerous volunteers, the Colonial now brings to the Monadnock Region a wide variety of popular performers along with touring musicals and dance companies.

It also plays host to community groups and continues to show movies. In 1998, about 50,000 people came to the theater. The next season, the theater staged  62 live presentations and films drew roughly 60,000 people. Things have continued upward from there.

With that kind of drawing power, the Colonial has become a key part of planning for a downtown revival. Arts people have always argued that the arts are good for business, and business people have finally caught on. A popular show at the Colonial fills seats in nearby restaurants, increases traffic at area stores, and ripples out to places like gas stations.

The arts are playing a key role in the revival of downtown Peterborough as well. The renovated Peterborough Town House once again hosts concerts, contra dances and community events. The Sharon Arts Center has moved both its gallery and crafts shop to handsome spaces in Depot Square. Sharon and several other new galleries make downtown Peterborough a destination for art lovers.

If downtown needs the visual and performing arts, the arts continually need new audiences. Although the Monadnock Children’s Museum and the Children’s Performing Arts Center bit the dust in the ’90s, area arts organizations and schools are finding ways to introduce children, the audience of the future, to the arts.

For years, the Grand Monadnock Arts Council’s ArtWalk turns downtown Keene into an art gallery each May. When the arts council ran out of gas, Center State Cheshire County stepped in, and has revived ArtWalk this month.

Busloads of schoolchildren tour the streets to look and learn.

The N.H. Dance Institute enlists 250 area children to participate in its annual performance, with the hope that many of them will remain interested in the arts.

The Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery at Keene State College also runs a program that brings area children into the gallery. For years, the gallery was part of the college library, but it finally got its own home in November 1993, a $1.8 building on the campus.

The larger gallery spaces, improved climate control and security have enabled the Thorne to mount more ambitious exhibits, including large works by Jules Olitski and Fritz Scholder and the eclectic Gund collection. The attractive space has also drawn an increasing number of submissions to the Thorne’s regional juried shows.

One of the biggest events in recent years, the filming of “Jumanji” in downtown Keene and in Swanzey, provided a certain thrill, but did not make Keene or the Monadnock Region a location of choice for other film makers, as some had hoped. Still, Central Square will always be the backdrop for the spectacular elephant stampede featured in the film and in its advertising.

In the 1980s, the videocassette explosion changed movie-going and TV viewing habits. Today’s newer technology, and the unimagined growth of the Internet, have even wider implications. The Internet promises to transform almost everything, including the arts, in this new millennium. Don’t expect all the hype to come true, but the Net is already making its mark.

Artists and artisans are selling their wares on the Web to a hugely increased market. Arts organizations are using  Web sites to inform and entice the public. It’s simple to discover what’s happening in your hometown or in a far-off city. For a recent eight-play theater marathon in London, my husband and I found all the information on the net — what was on stage, reviews of same, ticket prices and ways to order. The net holds unparalleled potential as an information and marketing tool.

Two examples of the Net’s impact: Area teenagers learned about a Strangefolk concert at the Colonial Theatre in Keene through a posting on the group’s Web page and spread the word. The concert sold out with minimal traditional advertising.

The Words and Pictures Museum, a museum of comic book art in Northampton, Mass., closed its doors in 1999, but reopened open on the Internet as a virtual museum. The decision, no doubt, represents a major financial savings, but at least part of the rationale rings true. Museum founder Kevin Eastman said, “By creating an entirely Virtual Museum ... we can reach millions of interested fans globally, fans that could never make the trip to Northampton.” .

Computer reproductions are a barely adequate substitute for real artwork, but putting art on the Web does extend its reach to millions of people, some of whom may be inspired to search out the original.

Critics like to predict that the arts are dying and the Philistines are taking over. Not me. The arts survive in the Monadnock Region and elsewhere because people need them. Taxpayers often denounce art as a “frill” at school district meetings, but in Sentinel reader polls huge numbers of readers confess that, given a choice, they’d like to be a singer or an artist.

Mozart’s a safe bet to endure well into the next millennium. People will still line up to get into the Louvre or to see “Star Wars” remakes. How the arts will be presented, what wonderful new technologies will emerge, is an open question. That the arts will be presented is a foregone conclusion.

Alice Fuld covered arts and entertainment for The Sentinel for 26 years.