St. Louis Regional Arts Commission It takes imagination to envision the future. Just imagine what could happen in St. Louis when creative minds come together….

Some time ago, I found myself on the other end of the media, being interviewed by a national magazine for an article on arts in the Midwest. “Aren’t you surprised that there are so many artists in the Midwest?” asked the writer. The question shocked me, but  I realized that it came from an assumption that “the arts happen on the coasts.” As politely as possible, I gently explained that the Midwest is the place for artists, providing not only as a connection to “what’s happening on the coasts” but as an area perfectly capable of generating great, new creative energy and ideas.

Midwest energy is about to burst forth April 12-14 when Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission (RAC) and the Cleveland  Community Partnership for the Arts & Culture (CPAC) present Rustbelt to Artist Belt: At the Crossroads. The Chase Hotel and Conference Center hosts the event.

This national conference unites a cross-section of artists, community activists, educators, academics, policy-makers, and “creatives” for critical dialogue about arts and community development. There’s special emphasis on the role of artists and their community partners in creating positive social change. It marks the first time that two separate conferences, previously held in Cleveland and Detroit, are united—and it promises to be HUGE.

“Rustbelt to Artist Belt” is about revitalization of industrial cities by integrating the efforts of artists and community developers.  Jill McGuire, Executive Director of RAC, explained, “We are excited to continue exploring the role of creative place-making in revitalizing cities. RAC looks forward to welcoming artists, architects, planners, community leaders and policy makers to a lively exchange of ideas.”

Added Roseann Weiss, RAC’s Director of Community Art Programs & Public Art Initiatives, “Our colleagues from the ‘rust belt’ cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia will join community arts activists from across the U.S….to examine how we can regenerate our neighborhoods in the most creative, dynamic ways.” Weiss also runs the CAT Institute.

“At the Crossroads: A Community Arts and Development Convening,” was originated in 2010 by RAC in 2010 as the first national conference on community arts. It encompassed a wide range of initiatives by artists/art organizations in partnership with human service agencies, community organizers and community developers designed to affect positive social change.

“Arts and culture have a strong impact in community development and regeneration,” affirms RAC’s announcement of the conference.  Studies prove that theaters, galleries, concert venues and public arts projects put “feet on the street.” More traffic translates to improved public safety and energized urban areas. Such venues allow other businesses—restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques and shops– to sprout, resulting in a win-win situation of economic development for an area.

Take a look, for example, at the Old North Restoration Group, lead by executive director Sean Thomas. Transforming an underserved neighborhood into a lively, sustainable community, the group involved public arts projects to energize the area: a public poetry trail of 11 banners with poems by Langston Hughes, painted murals in windows of abandoned buildings, sculptures in the butterfly garden, exhibits in the Gallery and outdoor film screenings for children. A recent addition is Northside Workshop, created by award-winning artist and cultural activist Juan William Chavez. Set to open this spring, the community art center is located in a renovated historic brick building. It will engage residents and visitors to various arts production, exhibits, concerts and classes.

Featured conference speakers are the best known experts in the field: Bill Cleveland of Center for the Study of Art and Community, Seattle, WA; Arlene Goldbard, author of New Creative Community;  Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza, co-directors of Animating Democracy, a national program sponsored by Americans for the Arts (AFTA).  Participants also include a group from Dublin, Ireland, led by Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell. The senator is a supporter of Blue Drum, an Irish community arts and social service organization.

“Cherokee Street Saturday Night,”  April 14, serves as the closing party for the conference. From 6-8 p.m., shops on Cherokee Street from Indiana to Virginia welcome visitors. Food trucks and street entertainers add to the festive atmosphere. The public is invited to join the party, and follow it to Art Dimensions (2720 Cherokee) at 8 p.m.

Support for the conference has been provided by the Ford Foundation and Leveraging Investments in Creativity, and is partially funded by the Kresge Foundation and the Regional Arts Commission. RAC derives funding from a portion of the hotel/motel room sales tax , providing more than $2.7 million annually in grants for financial, technical, promotional and other support to area arts organizations.

For conference registration or other details, contact Roseann Weiss: roseann@stlrac.org or phone 314-863-5811.