The mural needed a second look.
Sylvie Rice, a volunteer with the Historical Society of Cheshire County, had pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s profile is deliberately etched into the clouds of an otherwise colonial-era scene on Church Street in downtown Keene. In unison, the small group of local arts promoters and rural-development advisers craned their necks to better see the 16th president.
It was an apt metaphor for the fresh perspective they’re also giving plans for an expansive arts revitalization downtown. That project had seemed stalled, with its original organizer, the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., in financial trouble.
Now being led by the Keene nonprofit Arts Alive, though, the initiative took a step forward last week, when delegates from the national Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design toured the prospective arts corridor as part of their work helping hone the vision for it.
In addition to the Walldogs mural tour, led by Sylvie Rice of Keene, their itinerary included stops at the Colonial Performing Arts Center and its new Commercial Street venue, Showroom; the Jonathan Daniels Building on Federal Street, envisioned as a new arts hub; and “tentacles” of the corridor on Roxbury Street and Railroad Square.
Together with Arts Alive officials, the CIRD representatives — municipal-design experts Omar Hakeem and Candace Maloney — also met with city officials and local business leaders about the arts corridor project.
Arts Alive’s executive director, Jessica Gelter, has said the organization’s modest budget will prevent it from replicating the $30 million project Monadnock Economic Development Corp. had proposed, which included a large pavilion, live-in artist studios and a block-long pedestrian mall on Gilbo Avenue. Instead, the nonprofit is working with private companies and other community groups on ideas for the arts corridor, she told The Sentinel previously.
During the mural tour Wednesday, Gelter said those paintings, which Arts Alive helped sponsor, are a model — financially and creatively — for the community art she hopes is included in the new project.
“Our role in that was great,” she said.
Arts Alive was selected from a group of applicants earlier this year to receive technical aid from the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, a Washington, D.C.-based agency that helps small communities enhance their quality of life and economic vitality.
Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the nonprofit Housing Assistance Council, CIRD tapped Keene as one of just four places nationwide for its highest level of assistance this year, prompting last week’s visit. (The other three communities are Midway, Ala., Spring Grove, Minn. and Frederiksted, U.S. Virgin Islands.)
That help will include holding a workshop in Keene in late January to solicit ideas for the proposed arts corridor and to connect local leaders with design experts, according to Hakeem, who runs a D.C.-based municipal-design firm. Arts Alive is receiving a small grant from CIRD to help put on the workshop.
“That’s when we’ll really roll up our sleeves and hopefully get some work done,” he said during the mural tour Wednesday.
While walking around downtown, Hakeem spoke with Gelter and members of Arts Alive’s board of directors about traffic flow and parking in the city. The tour, he said, was important to see what is needed to bring the arts corridor to life.
“I really don’t have a pre-established vision,” he said.
Gelter said in May that the project will build on several private initiatives already making downtown Keene a cultural hotbed, calling it more of an “amoeba” than a distinct corridor.
In addition to Nova Arts, a live music venue at Brewbakers Café on Emerald Street, and artist studios at a revitalized Jonathan Daniels Building, it may include a pop-up market for local artists in the Commercial Street parking lot, she said at the time. Arts Alive also wants to create a publicly accessible venue, like a museum or interactive studio, to complement the performance spaces downtown that aren’t open all day, she said. Outdoor sculptures and other temporary art installations could be placed around the city, too.
Gelter said Wednesday she hopes to have a more precise blueprint for the arts corridor this coming spring.
That timeline will need to take into consideration other construction Keene is eyeing in the Main Street area, she said. Plans for that project will get underway next year, with work unlikely to begin before at least late 2023, according to Public Works Director Kurt Blomquist.
The downtown construction could be an opportunity, Gelter said, to work with city officials on an imaginative design for the arts corridor.
Jim Murphy, a Keene painter and musician on Arts Alive’s board, said Wednesday he thinks continued cultural development is crucial for the Monadnock Region, noting a 2017 study that found the local arts industry generated $18.6 million in economic growth in a single year.
“We know how important financially the arts are for this area,” he said, adding that creative outlets attract young people and families.
That vibrancy was on display last week, according to Maloney, an architect on CIRD projects. Noting on the walking tour that she found Main Street “quite beautiful,” Maloney said she hopes to help channel the city’s existing energy into its arts revitalization.
“You can tell that the people of this town care a lot about it and their history.”