The Columbus Area Arts Council is reshaping its mission — moving away from large-concert, weather-dependent gatherings and toward smaller, more varied, family friendly events reaching a more multi-faceted audience.

This new strategy marks the end for Biggest Block Party Ever, a downtown summertime fundraiser for the nonprofit agency for 11 years, said Kathryn Armstrong, who assumed the arts council’s executive director post in June.

Block Party, conducted at Fourth and Washington streets, becomes the second major outdoor event discontinued by the Arts Council following cancellation of Rock the Park, which debuted in 2008 at Mill Race Park. Both were large outdoor, ticketed events.

Since Block Party sprang up in 2006 with eight bands and later expanded to 12, food vendors and children’s games, new outdoor entertainment events have sprung up in Columbus. They include free events BBQ Blues and Brew, launched in 2014, and the Mill Race Marathon’s Finish On Fourth After Party, which began the year before, and last year’s inaugural Beerfest at Mill Race Park.

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“Everything has its lifespan,” said Sarah Cannon, president of the arts council board. “A couple of years ago, we as a board already had talked about the idea that the ideal situation would be that these kind of (concert) events would be presented by others in the community, and that kind of began happening organically. I personally think that’s good.”

While heavy rain doomed the final scheduled Rock the Park event, dealing a financial blow to the arts council, another type of weather condition — heat — hampered last July’s Block Party.

With muggy conditions and temperatures in the low 90s, Block Party drew 1,300 people, one of the smallest crowds of its existence. Last summer’s one-day festival raised about $30,000 annually, but required significant investment of time for planning and the help of many volunteers.

Steve Leach, owner of The Garage Pub & Grill downtown and one of the biggest local promoters of downtown events, said he understands the decision to end Block Party.

“Anytime you lose a downtown event, it will have some impact,” said Leach, who founded BBQ Blues and Brew and co-organizes the Finish On Fourth After Party. “But the bigger picture is that I believe the downtown will remain vibrant. We live in a community where people continue to step up.”

In 2012, the city completed a $1.7 million Fourth Street beautification and brick paving project partly designed to make the downtown more event and festival friendly.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop said that while it’s tough to see a once-popular event go, “I realize that times change, and there will be plenty of other downtown events.”

Now, as part of a new direction, the arts council is highlighting what it calls pop-up programming, ranging from children’s lunchtime events to hands-on workshops with local artists.

One event that it recently began hosting under that umbrella already is the monthly, free Chaotic Tuesdays at the Chaos I kinetic sculpture inside The Commons.

With other new events that are still forming, “these will allow us to continue to be fresh,” Armstrong said.

The agency will organize an arts program that will kick off in September with members of Dance Kaleidoscope of Indianapolis working alongside members of the local Dancers Studio Inc. The two organizations are longtime collaborators on a range of projects, from classes to full productions.

They will join forces for an Exhibit Columbus project to be outlined later.

“I’m excited about all this,” said Alma Wiley, founder and director of Dancers Studio Inc., referring to the effort for Exhibit Columbus, which celebrates local art, architecture and design. “Design is a part of everything. It’s in choreography and costuming and sets.”

Arts council leaders say the agency’s signature free events will continue.

Those include the monthly summertime JCB NeighborFEST street concerts, easily moved indoors in case of rain; Old National Bank First Fridays For Families children’s education and entertainment, held inside The Commons; and the Live On the Plaza summertime concert at the Bartholomew County Public Library Plaza.

But a fresh perspective for other activities is essential, Armstrong said.

“With a new approach, what we hope to do is to engage new sponsors and new donors who specifically want to support new programming,” Armstrong said.

Such financial support allows about 80 percent of the arts council’s programming to be offered for free, she said.

In the future, arts council leaders also want to encourage creative thinking for using the city’s cultural district.

This is all part of the adjustments for the longtime local agency linked to orchestras, actors, singers, artists and a range of other artisans or performers.

As part of that reshaping, Armstrong mentioned that an arts council rebranding will be unveiled later this year.

She said the council’s renewed focus is on offerings that educate, engage and entertain while integrating art and cultural experiences into community life.

Such integration includes finding new ways to use the arts as a tool for economic development, Armstrong said.

In the past, newcomers here have mentioned how available entities such as the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic and the kidscommons children’s museum became part of their decision to move to Columbus.

In recent years, one significant piece of the arts council’s educational component has been via dramatic musicals presented free before several hundred students, parents, grandparents and others at at The Commons on Martin Luther King Day. The performances from visiting troupes have highlighted King’s life to shine a broader spotlight on racism and related topics.

Cannon said she looks forward “to some exciting and not-so-predictable” developments with the arts council’s plans.

“I’m excited about Kathryn’s and the board’s vision,” Cannon said. “We hired her with the intention of reshaping and advancing our mission, and she certainly is doing that.”

Another arts council role

Many local residents probably know the Columbus Area Arts Council for its visibility with such high-profile events as JCB NeighborFEST and Old National Bank’s First Fridays For Families.

But part of the arts council’s role involves serving as a coordinator of Indiana Arts Commission’s Regional Initiative Grants. Funding is given for both individual projects and individual organizations in Region 9, which is southeastern Indiana.

Region 9 includes Bartholomew, Dearborn, Decatur, Franklin, Jackson, Jennings, Ohio, Ripley and Switzerland counties.

In addition to providing grant funding, the arts council also provides information, referral and cultural planning assistance to arts-related organizations.

Columbus Area Arts Council

The Driftwood Valley Arts Council, formed in 1972, became the Columbus Area Arts Council in 1989.

Staff: Kathryn Armstrong, executive director; Tami Sharp, program director; Chris Crawl, technical director; Whitney Hartwell, outreach coordinator; Tracy Heaton de Martinez, Region 9 representative.

Office: Inside The Commons at 300 Washington St.

Phone: 812-376-2539

Online: artsincolumbus.org

Pull Quote

“With a new approach, what we hope to do is to engage new sponsors and new donors who specifically want to support new programming.”

— Kathryn Armstrong, Columbus Area Arts Council executive director

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.