by Doug Roysdon
This network of artists and small-to-medium sized non-profit organizations has evolved, not out of direct commercial interest, but as means of serving the diverse cultural needs of the regional audience. Its existence is organic, shaped directly by its place of origin.
It is a great luxury to live in a community with both a growing entertainment industry and a thriving cultural infrastructure. Together, these community assets bring excitement, employment and prosperity to the Valley. But maintaining a working relationship between the two can be a difficult task. Often the line between arts and entertainment venues overlap. Just as often, their community roles are confused or misunderstood. Lack of definition can create the dangerous impression that commercial and cultural institutions are cut of the same cloth and that their services are interchangeable. This erroneous perception can lead to an unfortunate competition for financial support, community influence and media attention.
Our entertainment venues offer a wealth of direct benefits to community life. Commercial enterprises, featuring national touring acts, popular entertainers and media events, provide jobs, revenue and economic opportunities for people throughout the Valley. Such venues are vital for attracting youth, talent and new employers to the region. Artistically, they provide opportunities for experiencing national trends and technological advances in the arts. In short, strong entertainment venues play an important role in raising the quality of life in the Valley and for providing a lively, contemporary profile for the region.
Meanwhile, the contributions of the Valley’s cultural infrastructure are of a quite different nature. This network of artists and small-to-medium sized non-profit organizations has evolved, not out of direct commercial interest, but as means of serving the diverse cultural needs of the regional audience. Its existence is organic, shaped directly by its place of origin. Museums such as The Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum document and celebrate Valley history. Community theaters like the Charles Brown Ice House in Bethlehem offer a stage for area performers and musicians. Choral groups, salsa bands and festivals serve the preferences of the Valley’s varied audiences—from Celts and contra dancers to devotees of J. S. Bach. In this way, our cultural infrastructure has emerged as a singular community resource. A unique public entity formed by many hands over many generations, the Valley’s cultural infrastructure with its rich flow of public programs is the true heartbeat of the region.
Just as the content and collective mission of the cultural infrastructure differ from regional entertainment enterprises, so does the role it plays in the community. Consisting mainly of permanent residents, the cultural infrastructure is heavily invested in regional education, community partnerships and joint promotional projects. Creatively, the infrastructure often features new works about the region itself such as Touchstone Theatre’s production of Steel Bound. Economically, its benefits are long term, its many venues embodying the qualities expected of a progressive contemporary community. And, most important of all, the cultural infrastructure is geographically integrated into the community itself. The Downtown Bethlehem Association’s festivals are fine examples of the artist/merchant partnership, sharing artistic activities with retail, restaurant and municipal institutions. Likewise, the infrastructure is integrated demographically, involving diverse presenters, numerous decision-makers and people of varying economic means.
The cultural infrastructure is our stage, our gallery of images. It is the place where we talk about ourselves, the realities of Valley life and preserve our regional identity. As an agent of change or a ready partner in progressive community developments, the Valley’s cultural infrastructure plays a continuing role creating new festivals, contemporary arts venues and partnering with social service organizations. For these reasons, it is important that we not allow the line to blur between our entertainment industry and our native arts community. We must not lose sight of the fact that the two cultural forces are of two entirely different worlds. Rather, we must seek to establish a balanced relationship between them; a balance that is separate and complementary.
Doug Roysdon is the artistic director at the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
(Published in the 2012 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)