In government, the old maxim says that the legislative branch has the power of the purse.
It remains true that, at the municipal level, the township council has the final say on the budget—and therefore has final say on what the town spends taxpayer dollars on.
In the context of the arts, this remains important because if a majority of council finds value in the arts then, in concert with the town administration, those council members have the power to pursue an arts-friendly agenda and fund it.
So, the Hamilton Post asked all five members of council where they stood on a variety of arts-related issues. The Post sent questions, via email, to members of council. Council members replied with written responses.
Council members Anthony Carabelli, Jr. and Nancy Phillips, in particular, are well versed to discuss the role of arts in our community. Phillips is the council liaison to the Hamilton Arts Commission. Carabelli, meanwhile, works full time as director of economic development for Mercer County, a role that includes oversight of the Mercer County Culture and Heritage Commission. The commission supports county-based arts and history organizations, as well as offers special cultural events for the public and opportunities for local artists. It offers grants, sponsors the Mercer County Artists and Photography exhibitions and also purchases artwork from these shows for a permanent Mercer County art collection.
Our conversation with the five members of council appears below:
What arts and culture event, place or tradition do you personally enjoy in Hamilton?
Anthony Carabelli, Jr.: I always have enjoyed the Grounds for Sculpture. It is truly an inspiring and unique place that demonstrates natural and artistic treasures in our own backyard.
Nancy Phillips: My absolute favorite town wide event is Winter Wonderland. Since my children were little it has been a holiday tradition. We have especially enjoyed the beautiful Kuser Mansion decorated for Christmas, the tradition of getting our bag of reindeer food and the singing of Christmas Carols in the Gazebo. Our favorite feature was the Singing Tree which was featured at least one of the years.
Rick Tighe: I love the Winter Wonderland in Kuser Park. I like to hear the local talent singing the holiday carols.
Charles Whalen, Sr.: I really enjoy the school musical concerts that my grandchildren perform in. They are in elementary school.
Please share what arts involvement you have had as a youth and any artistic endeavors currently.
Carabelli: I have always enjoyed drawing and painting. I definitely am a work in progress but I find it to be so relaxing.
Phillips: Growing up I played both the saxophone and clarinet, in fact sitting first chair in 8th grade! I also participated in choir and have continued to enjoy singing although mostly in my car these days. In college I studied communication and found my passion in audio production where I wrote, produced and acted in audio plays and wrote and produced interviews. I continued this work in radio until discovering my passion for teaching. I also was vice-president of the Music and Entertainment Association creating events, booking artists and promoting various events.
Tighe: I am a musician. I still play guitar after starting out as a youngster on piano. I took piano lessons with Mrs. Britton on White Horse Avenue as a kid and looked forward to the recitals we played at the Trenton Conservancy. I feel that playing music lets off a little steam and stress from the day, so for me playing music is an excellent hobby. I love it!
Whalen: I was more of an athlete in my younger years than a creative type. I always enjoyed going to the school shows and appreciated all the time invested and talents of the performers.
Do you attend any school arts and music events? How can we help get the audiences off their sofas and to appreciate all the work and joy of live shows?
Carabelli: I have recently attended a performance of the Hamilton West jazz band and performances of the Steinert choir.
One of the best tools is through social media. This is cost effective and allows for a larger audience of family and friends to share information about the performance. Other government entities including Mercer County can assist our schools in promoting performances, specifically through the Mercer County Division of Culture and Heritage.
Pat Papero, Jr.: I try to attend as many of the student events as possible. My son is involved in sports and my daughter attends dance school. Most of the events I have attended are for my daughter’s recitals. I have also taken the kids to A Christmas Carol at McCarter theater around the holidays. As far as getting people involved, having events in the community where people can explore and be introduced to new things would probably be a great way of generating more interest.
Phillips: I have attended talent shows, concerts, plays and dances at both the elementary and middle school levels both when my own kids were participants and when they weren’t.
Prior to COVID I think one obstacle to the public attending was lack of venues that could handle the numbers of people who might attend and lack of publicity. Each time I have attended an event with the exception of one, it was held in the auditorium at the middle school or in the cafeteria/gym. With just parents and families, all shows have sold out. If the elementary and high schools held their concerts and plays at the high schools, there would be higher attendance and opportunity. This is however limited for the plays as they often are overlapping between the middle and high schools.
In regards to concerts, my daughter was included in the honors band in 5th grade and practiced with the other elementary schools. Their performance was at the Trenton War Memorial auditorium, and it was fantastic. They felt so special, it was recorded for broadcast and there was plenty of room.
Do you feel there are enough venues in Hamilton for various arts and culture events? Do we need to repurpose a town owned building to have a central location for these types of events? Or can we better utilize existing venues?
Carabelli: I believe that there are several outdoor locations that could lend themselves to arts and culture events. Especially faced with the pandemic and the need to congregate outdoors, we have beautiful park space that we can utilize. Sayen Gardens, Veterans Park, Kuser Park, Grafton House are all Township jewels that could accommodate outdoor events and programming.
As it pertains to indoor space, it would be worth examining different locations to exhibit art and cultural pieces. In the immediate future, I would recommend displaying art throughout our town in public buildings (town hall, library, Sayen Gardens, Grafton House and schools). As we look to the future, we should consider a dedicated location to display art from our young and senior aspiring artists and pieces that we lease or purchase.
Papero: I believe there are enough places in town currently that would be able to hold such events. There are places such as Nottingham ballroom or colonial firehouse which can accommodate larger numbers of people and still have enough room for display areas. If this was something that really took off, then I believe that I also could envision some other building being repurposed for arts and culture events.
Phillips: For the size and population of Hamilton Township, I don’t think we really have any existing buildings or venues that could become a location for indoor cultural and/or musical events but perhaps I am not aware of everything available. I would absolutely love to see a venue not necessarily like the Trenton War Memorial but a venue that could accommodate the number of people in the town who may attend but especially those we would draw to Hamilton for various types of art forms. A venue that could include a theater as well as other spaces could also become a place for teaching and develop a full arts culture.
Tighe: I believe these needs should be addressed by a public and private partnership. I would like to see more venues in the Arts and Culture district. We need to leverage the hub of the Grounds for Sculpture so we can realize more destinations such as performing and gallery spaces. It will definitely take private efforts to keep the arts moving forward and thriving.
Is there any chance to reinvigorate the Hamilton Arts District and what would it take to get there? Government funding? Corporate funding? Small steps and successes? An enterprise tax zone? Does the public want or need an Arts District?
Carabelli: As we know, arts districts allow the town to brand itself as creative and cultured centers in order to promote tourism, attract new residents and encourage new businesses. It would seem that the epicenter of this location is the internationally renowned Grounds for Sculpture. I also believe that projects in close proximity to this site can expand on the idea of a district. For instance, the future of the former Congoleum site should contain some cultural or artist inspired work or building. Sitting across the street from our Train Station, it is a gateway into the town and should be treated as such. As we all know, the linkages are there as you drive from the Grounds to the train station. Art displays appear throughout your trip. A district would help in messaging and branding this particular stretch of space.
All [sources of funding] should be examined on how to ensure progress on this idea. I would also emphasize that the district itself should not be limited to where art can be displayed but act to spur further growth of art throughout our town. At this time, I would not support a new tax on our businesses that are within this designated district.
Phillips: I, like others, are very interested in developing the Arts District. I need to get more information on what has been holding it back and how we can move it forward. I do notice several buildings that could have potential to be developed into galleries, etc., but I am not sure the next steps. I do think the public would love an arts district and especially one that would provide opportunities for young people as well.
Tighe: There is the very important Congoleum site. We have to make sure we do this right. It makes sense to take our time, since we are at a pivot point, and this project will have multi-generational impact. We have the opportunity to broaden the orbit from Grounds For Sculpture. We would like to see development that will create spaces that will benefit the community and the developers. With the train station in such close proximity, we have the chance to make a regional impact.
Whalen: I was on the planning board when the Arts District was originally conceived and laid out. We thought it would be a great idea with Grounds for Sculpture as a central point and attract arts and culture entities surrounding it. That did not happen, so I am glad this idea is being discussed again.
The arts bring in people, who eat, shop and spend time and money. What would an easy first step be to move in the direction to help facilitate this possible tourism?
Carabelli: We already have some of the best restaurants in all of Mercer County. It is complementary to have an art exhibit or theatrical space that would provide a nice addition to an evening out in Hamilton. It makes sense to build on this proven history of attracting residents and non-residents for our food to also do so for our art. Working with these establishments to promote local exhibits or performances seems to work really well together.
Phillips: Relationships! One of my favorite places to see a show and have dinner is in Haddonfield. They have an old theater and a couple times have timed well attended concerts with restaurant week. It has been a great night out for my husband and I and for my friends and I. The restaurants are aware of the event and seat accordingly and make sure you have a delicious meal and have you out in time to walk to your venue. The bonus is usually those eating in the restaurant with you are heading to the same concert and you end up with a great, excited restaurant experience as well!
Do you think that Hamilton could budget $1,000 a year to fund a Purchase Award prize for a Hamilton Arts Commission exhibition that could be the beginnings of a town art collection?
Carabelli: That seems like a reasonable request. We could also examine grant opportunities. Through government and nonprofit programs, there are numerous local and national grants that we can explore.
Phillips: I think it’s a good idea!
Do you think an open air theater in one of the Hamilton parks or in the arts district could be a good dream project to start with?
Carabelli: As mentioned, I believe that we have some hidden treasures to accommodate open air theatrical performances. I don’t believe that we need a designated space at one particular park at this time. Rather, this could be a dream project for the arts district.
Papero: I think an open air theater is a good idea as it would attract more shows and events for people to attend. As far as the ShopRite property, I believe the town is still looking for input from residents on some ideas for this area. Suggesting this to be an area of arts and culture is a great idea.
Phillips: Because it seems the Mercer County Park stage and area hasn’t been as utilized as I imagined it might be, I’m not sure outdoor is key. We have many outdoor festivals and such. I think people would love an indoor elegant experience.
Do you think the future is bright for arts and culture in Hamilton?
Carabelli: Definitely. Mercer County currently ranks fourth in the state for the economic impact of tourism to this region, and I am certain that a great deal of that particular revenue is derived from arts and culture. With an international treasure in Grounds for Sculpture; ample outdoor recreation space for open air performances; seniors and youth alike eager to get involved in this process; and opportunities through major economic development projects, the future is bright for the growth of arts in Hamilton Township.
Phillips: I do see a bright future and I think the more variations of arts we bring in the better. We have amazing musicians, painters, singers, dancers and more right here in Hamilton! I think once we have a clear vision we can develop a plan.
Tighe: I do. I am interested as to what the newly established Hamilton Arts Commission can get initiated. To see what these volunteers can help showcase will be good. I know we have plenty of talent living here and especially all the arts students in our schools. I think it’s good to keep Arts and Culture in the public eye and have these discussions.
Whalen: Yes, I do. I think we must keep the schools engaged, the shows they produce get many kids involved, not just the performers, but the backstage people. I do not see Arts and Culture as a political thing, I see it as something we can all enjoy, something we can all appreciate.