Genesee County cultural plan needs a push to get going
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Genesee County cultural plan needs a push to get going

Sep 14, 2015

Planning in the arts community goes far beyond double-checking to make sure the myriad concerts, festivals, gallery shows and fundraisers going on aren’t all scheduled for the same night in February.

It’s connecting artists, venues and cultural groups spread across a rural landscape that would otherwise isolate them. It’s developing an awareness and appreciation for the performances, displays and experiences available each season.

It can be difficult to pull everything together, but Genesee County’s efforts toward tracking, coordinating and promoting of cultural assets has a decade-plus head start on New York City, Buffalo and many large cities.

Based on research and community involvement dating back nearly 20 years, an overall cultural development plan developed by the Genesee County Arts Advisory Committee was adopted in 2013.

“Genesee County Cultural Plan: Enhancing the County’s economy and quality of life through the development of arts, heritage and cultural resources” is designed to be the cultural equivalent of a municipal master planning document.

It set priorities at the community-level for the network of artists, cultural groups and benefactors who already are intertwined in Genesee and who — according to data old enough now to be in high school — produce about $5 million in annual economic activity from more than 1,000 events each year.

“We see the manufacturing, the agricultural industry and we know how much they contribute, but because the arts are more amorphous, we don’t think of them the same way,” said Terry Abrams of Basom, who chairs the advisory committee. “There’s a lot of activity going on, but its hard to see it all. You don’t realize the scope and extent that the arts play.”

Abrams believes there is only a vague awareness of the cultural bounty, from individual artists, writers, musicians and performers to organizations spread across Genesee.

“There’s certainly a lot of activities, with what’s going at Harvester, and the programming the libraries are doing, the historical societies, the Holland Land Office, the Landmark Society … as Bill Kauffman always points out, for a community of its size, for Batavia to have a professional baseball team and a symphony orchestra is quite impressive.”

Helping bring new audiences to those groups is one of the main visions for the advisory committee, which was formed as part of Genesee County’s 1998 Comprehensive Plan with the goal of strengthening the arts and enriching the cultural life of the county’s residents. It’s main goal for 15 years was creating the cultural plan.

A 2002 Economic Impact Study of Arts and Culture in Genesee County and a 2006 Cultural Needs Assessment Study followed up on their efforts, showing both an influx of business from the arts and a local desire to increase the number and variety of cultural programs.

Both studies remain in the document, which was adopted by Genesee County Legislators amid a flurry of resolutions in June 2013. That day’s session focused more on a proposed law to regulate the transfer of secondhand items and scrap materials, but legislators offered high hopes for the marketing of the county as a cultural destination, one that promotes its creative workers and encourage multi-generational education opportunities.

“By the year 2020, the cultural economy of Genesee County will be recognized for its strength, diversity and industry,” their resolution proclaimed. “This plan represents ideas and recommendations to work toward making this vision a reality.”

Abrams, who joined the committee in 2008, said it was a major achievement to get that far. Most cities and counties haven’t.

That doesn’t mean implementing it has been easy.

“The main challenge, for so long, was that the focus was on creating the plan,” Abrams said. “Because the focus has changed from creation of the plan to overseeing implementation of the plan, its more difficult, a different set of challenges … it’s a bit of an adjustment.”

The 12-member arts advisory committee meets monthly at the Genesee Regional Arts Council’s headquarters in Batavia to share what’s happening in their communities and update their progress on more than three-dozen strategies outlined in the plan.

Representatives from educational, business and arts organizations serve three-year terms, with Corfu Free Library Director Diana Reding, Genesee Community College photography instructor Joe Ziolkowski and Kauffman joining this year.

Kelly Rapone, the county’s tourism marketing director, was added to the roster in 2014. Her work already focused on building up destination tourism, expanding a short trip to Darien Lake, Batavia Downs or Terry Hills into a longer stay by connecting lodging, dining and other attractions, many of which fall under the committee’s scope.

“Its an important segment of what we can offer, (another) piece, along with outdoor and historic experiences that may be not strong enough to stand on their own but together makes this an attractive place to visit,” Rapone said.

Rapone hopes the project will expand the niches that can keep travelers in Batavia and Genesee County longer, but said much of the work is still at the high-level discussion phase. She hopes to work toward things like a coordinated ticketing strategy for disparate events.

The committee’s goals aren’t the type of specific projects that can galvanize support the way a new festival, concert series or construction of a performing arts center would.

They’re the sort of the thing that can be used reinforce the community support element of a grant application. GO ART! already uses the plan for it’s annual push for state arts council funding that flows to artists, organizations and special projects.

“It shows the community is behind it, we see the need and are working to make it stronger,” said GO ART! Executive Director Heather Grant, who joined the committee when she was promoted this year to the council’s top post. “When (a plan) is developed and we’re working toward it, that shows the funding sources its a worthwhile project.”

While GO ART!’s annual awards bring together local groups and artists, Grant said those relationships are a focus of the plan. A get-together is being planned out for later this fall as other small, necessary steps like coordinating a comprehensive cultural calendar are being developed.

“We want to make sure the arts, culture and heritage are a priority in the minds of the community members, to say we have this concert series in Le Roy, and this festival in Elba … to highlight and market them all together as something very positive for the economy and our growth,” Grant said. “It makes people want to come, and makes people want to stay.”

But first, the committee’s members say a greater awareness of the plan’s existence and the benefits a coordinated cultural plan can bring is needed. That’s the kind of job that needs a centralized approach, something that is among the committee’s largest unachieved goals.

The plan was intended to be carried out by a full-time administrator, a liaison between stakeholders and into the community. It wasn’t funded by the county in 2013, and a bid for funding in the state’s multi-million dollar consolidated funding bonanza was denied soon after.

An application for this year’s round of grants was discussed but ultimately was not pursued. GO ART! can’t easily take on the position’s costs, Grant said, as it is runs on a small staff and a limited budget.

Plan in hand, the committee, and the county just need someone to drive.

“Ideally we’d have someone whose job is to talk to all the organizations, a very hands on sort of thing,” Abrams said. “The overall plan encompasses a lot of different groups - schools, libraries, public and private organizations.”

“Everyone is impacted by the arts.”

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