Breaking art loose from the galleries

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Hopewell Valley is in for a two-year, Valley-wide festival of visual and performing arts, if a new citizens group gets the help it needs to fulfill its vision.

The Hopewell Valley Public Arts Initiative, an all-volunteer group, aims to build a strong arts presence in Hopewell and Pennington Boroughs and Hopewell Township.

“The HVPAI is a grassroots effort of people who sat down and said ‘we’ve got this gap in our community in extra curricular arts activities: performing arts, visual arts, musical arts, all of it,’” said the HVPAI’s Betsy Ackerman, who is helping shepherd the effort through its early stages. “And we thought, what a great way to bring the entire Valley together to build community spirit across the Valley, by doing a public arts initiative.”

The initiative, the production and public display of as many as 70 sculptures, will be the festival’s core project. Each sculpture will be sponsored by a different group or business and decorated by the sponsor’s chosen artist. The sculptures’ form is yet to be determined, but may be something linked to the area’s agricultural heritage, such as an ox.

Public arts projects are a popular way of bringing new energy to a community. Dozens have been held across the country, featuring sculptures of life-sized horses, cows, mules, and more. The HVPAI has reached out to towns that have had similar arts initiatives, from upstate New York to Florida.

Plans are for the finished statues to be installed across the Hopewell Valley in spring/summer 2014 and auctioned that fall.

“All along the way, there are going to be events. There might be a Battle of the Bands, there might be a Valley-wide scavenger hunt, an art competition in the schools, dance performances,” Ackerman said.

The HVPAI hopes the festival will not only build awareness of the arts and create a stronger sense of community as residents, schools, groups and businesses create and enjoy the art and activities. The group also aims to raise money for the region’s very own arts council that will run art classes and events year round.

“It’s acknowledged that our schools do a really good job in musical, performing, visual arts, video. But after school, we don’t have a local arts council to produce an ongoing program for students interested in the arts,” Ackerman said.

In addition to providing more educational opportunities, Ackerman said an arts council would help retain and strengthen area talent.

“I think sometimes we live in the shadow of Princeton. But we contribute a lot of talent and a lot of money to Princeton-based causes. And this becomes an opportunity to build community pride based on homegrown talent. And it becomes an opportunity to develop a program for our kids so they don’t have to drive to Princeton to be involved in the arts after school.”

Ackerman, a member of the Marshall’s Corner/Pennytown Taskforce, notes that the new Hopewell Valley Arts Council could find a home in the development’s proposed “health/wellness/fitness” community center, along with the Senior Center, Recreation Foundation and other Valley non-profit organizations.

However, she said, “This arts initiative is going to happen whether or not a community center gets built at Pennytown or somewhere else.”

Township committee members have been enthusiastic about the plans, citing the economic, as well as the aesthetic, community-building and educational advantages a strong arts presence can bring by focusing attention on the region, attracting visitors and increasing street traffic.

The HVPAI has also gotten support from the area’s best-known artist, J. Seward Johnson, who has offered to help mark the festival’s debut with the donation of three of his cast bronze sculptures that will be permanent gifts to the residents of Hopewell Valley.

Ackerman stresses that even if you aren’t artistic, you can get involved. Committees are being formed for the festival’s many needs, including marketing and publicity, transport, technical needs, finding sponsors and artists, and more.

“We welcome volunteer participation from anyone who has a can-do spirit and a good idea,” Ackerman said.

Those who can lend their time and skills can contact the HVPAI through Facebook or Twitter — as soon as a volunteer has been recruited to set up the accounts.