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Civic Duties • back

My sense of duty as a member of a community and an artist has always been part of who I am.  As such, I am very passionate about the work I do and what I have achieved.  I grew up in a community with a large public sculpture, “We The People,” created by my uncle and mentor, Armando Alvarez.  His public sculptures are found throughout New Mexico and at the L.A. Zoo.  He also worked as an art teacher for a number of years on the Navajo reservation, telling me that it’s his students who are teaching him.  In some ways I continue my uncle's work of educating artists, mentoring a number of artists of all ages from the Navajo and Zuni reservation, as well as local artists for free.  

I have been part of larger movements to enact changes and have seen amazing transformations of a community when people work together.  I have also been part of very small cabal that has effected grand changes by working without any real public support.  Sadly I have also seen the back biting when things turn political.  

BINGHAMTON NEW YORK

                                                                 My first real involvement with civic activities started in Binghamton

                                                          New York where I was part of a larger group of artists starting a grassroots                                                            effort to enact changes in a small city (the region has around 250,000 people) that had suffered from industries closing (like IBM, which started in the region).  The large downtown was dying, a ghost town at night, and had become unsafe, there had been a recent murder, and other crimes were not uncommon. This is in contrast to how downtown had been in its heyday,

people had compared the downtown to a slice of NYC, in terms of how busy

it was.  It was also a city known for it's nightlife back in the day, and people

from all over would travel to Binghamton for music and have fun.  A friend of

mine has a photo of their mother back in the 1940's, and I had originally

mistaken the setting of the photo to be in NYC because of the amount of

people in the background of the photo.  Slowly the once beautiful downtown

with many historic buildings began to fall out of favour with businesses, and

without care, the buildings began to fall apart.  This includes ballrooms, grand

lobbies, restaurants that looked like a scene from some 1940's film, fancy and

elegant.  Across from my studio was a building, an opera house where Teddy

Roosevelt had given a speech.  I had a country house, a refuge from my NYC apartment, so I never intended to become part of the community or help in anyway.  Once people begin to know you are an artist, it's hard to play the hermit for too long, and so I would end up participating to the point where I felt excited about the developing creative community.  

The story is longer than it is interesting, so I will sum it up as fast as possible.  There was a section of downtown that had not suffered as badly.  Basically a few streets and their cross streets were doing fine, and one street, Washington Street was the designated Arts and Cultural District.  The Arts Council, with their gallery, The Art Mission was located on Washington Street.  They had a fairly paltry monthly art event, "First Night" with only their one galley that all the activities circulated around.  After my big show at the Art Mission and becoming friends with the directors, who game me permission, my artists friends and I began to take our easels and have small shows outside, on Washington Street.  That gained attention from more artists who would join us.  We would eventually move our easels to other parts of downtown and do the same.  

There was an area on the opposite side of downtown, the more dodgy end, where rents were cheap, and artists were starting to get studios, and two had begun galleries.  I followed suit,  but opening my studio and gallery on another dodgy end of downtown.  I had placed my gallery purposefully in a location that created a near perfect triangle from what would become the new art district to the old art district with the idea that if our efforts grew, I would have already created a point of synergy for others to gravitate towards, while filling in the space between the two art districts.  

 

Our efforts was covered in the New York Times article, "Can Art Save A Town?"  The answer is yes.  We started our own arts event, First Fridays, which was a little improvement on "First Nights" in terms of attendance, but would grow larger and larger each year.  At the time I left the region, it was clear we had made an impact.  A building had sold for $900,000 on the dodgy block where First Friday was happening, with a fine dining restaurant opening in the downstairs and luxury apartments on top.  In contrast with just years before when my friend bought a building prior to the artists moving in for $99,000.  It was actually three buildings separated by fire doors on each level (the buildings was probably five or six stories high).  While First Fridays never reached my gallery, we did get allot of traffic and soon began to be known as the working artists' gallery.  

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Abandoned building 
right across from 
gallery and studio

After I left however, a cafe moved in, the University created dorms, a big grocery store opened, another cafe would open, another fine dining restaurant, and another Arts Council with their gallery opened up on my block.  Soon the First Friday event would extend to my block.

 

On one First Fridays 35,000 people attended.  This is clearly all very big success in the restoration of a dying downtown.  It is now a popular place to live, meet up at night, to go out, dine, dance, hear music, and look at art.   

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BINGHAMTON'S FIRST FRIDAY WITH 35,000 VISITORS TO THE EVENT

GALLUP NEW MEXICO

Moving back to my hometown of Gallup New Mexico was always my goal.  I had written essays based off my experiences during my time in Binghamton, where grassroots artist participation and working together achieved transformative changes.  I also had accompanied my then wife to many press junkets when she worked as a journalist, first for the New York Times, then the NY Post, finally retiring from journalism with Gannet (publisher of USA Today and many hometown newspapers), and for People Magazine's End of the Year Book.  I listened and observed so much from the city government side of tourism that I had a pretty good self taught education on tourism.  When I moved back to Gallup, I had written many papers based upon creating an art scene and tourism in the region, and had not come back empty handed.  

To make this short, what I did is work with the director of the Business Improvement District to make some grand changes to our arts event, "Second Saturdays."  I got the streets closed off, filled our empty storefronts with old photos of Gallup, and took the event outside with performers, musicians, and artists showing their works.  There were many changes we made that I can't recall everything we did in our partnership of two years.  The result was to transform an event that had (upon my initial head count prior to our changes) 60 people attending to an event where hundreds of people attend monthly.  Our best month was over 1000 people attending.  It is also an event that is looked forward to and talked about community wide.  

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GALLUP'S MONTHLY ART EVENT AFTER MY CHANGES

Despite only scratching at the surface of what I hoped to achieve in my small hometown, my involvement came to a slow end when the director of the BID I worked with left town.  I tried working with a larger group of people for a couple of years, but the partnership was not a direction I felt was healthy.  It seemed people forgot that we were only in a supportive role.  Instead it felt like others wanted control over the art scene.  I was able to see my long term plan of a Downtown Commons get built, although it did lack any of my original vision for it.  It was built on the same street as my very first studio at age 17.  

Thank you for reading

Shane Van Pelt