Authenticity in Arts Districts
We Americans are jaded. We have been to amusement parks that attempt to replicate Main Street. We know, or at least think we know, the genuine from the artificial. As we add the next level of development to our communities, mostly in our downtowns or retail districts, we need to keep in mind that each of our communities has a history, a heritage, and a story. While we may not realize it, that story is our most precious asset. In a world where derivative work thrives in film, television, books, and the Internet, the most original stories are right at our own doorstep. And there is an audience eager to hear our stories.
The term “authenticity” was used by virtually every practitioner who spoke at the Arts District preconference in Pittsburgh. Our experience in Bethlehem, PA is not unique, but it is informative. We renovated 10 acres in the core of an old steel plant using the five remaining 80-foot tall blast furnaces as the permanent “installation,” an artwork so authentic and with so many stories, that the sense of place is overwhelming, even with the overlay of landscape architecture, music performance venues, and al fresco dining.
The blast furnaces at SteelStacks are illuminated at night by a massive LED lighting system. They form the backdrop for an indoor stage in a contemporary performing arts center 150 feet from the furnaces, as well as an outdoor stage directly at their base. With the oldest building (1863) on the site renovated to be the Visitor Center (and major restroom facilities for the hundreds of events that occur on the site), SteelStacks exudes authenticity, and invites the visitor to want to learn more about the stories of this industrial relic.
The Tenement Museum in New York City is a new model for telling the story of place. In one relatively small building in America’s largest city, trained docents bring to life the stories of generations of tenants who lived in this building for over 150 years. They tell the story of a city and to a great extent our country; of dreams, ambitions, families, hardship, and success. The Tenement Museum also tells us that we no longer want to wander through dusty museums looking at artifacts with hard to read plaques. We want to know how the artifact related to the people who lived there and we want to hear about their lives.
At SteelStacks we redundantly added public sculpture, made of steel, to the site. But the sculpture is not a water feature, it emits flames to remind us that these great machines belched fire and real people risked their lives to make metals that were converted into the rails, I-beams, and bridges that built America and the ships, planes, and munitions that defended our country. That is our story. Photographers, painters, writers, designers, glassblowers, dancers, musicians, and many other artists inspired by that story now gather in reach of these mighty monuments to make their own stories.
Your community has a story. Make sure that your arts district celebrates it. The authenticity will be an important reason for the success of your district.