Yes, Canton is home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it is also the nurturing nest of fiber artists, potters, photographers, oil painters, ballet dancers, jugglers, weavers, watercolorists, drummers, jewelry makers, actors, jazz singers, stilt walkers, playwrights, opera singers, furniture designers, filmmakers, sculptors, folk musicians, poets, digital artists, woodworkers and more.
The creative explosion that has occurred in Canton and surrounding Stark County over the past several years is nothing less than phenomenal.
“If you would have said to the average person that the arts scene here would grow at this rate, that person would have thought you were crazy,” says Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, the County Arts Council.
Like other downtowns with industrial roots, Canton suffered growing pains trying to figure out its identity, says Judith P. Christy, marketing director for ArtsinStark. Christy and others wondered, “Is there life after big downtown department stores? Will people really come down here after the street lights come on?”
Canton had a good arts foundation. The 330,000-square-foot Cultural Center for the Arts, built in 1970, houses the Canton Museum of Art, the Canton Symphony Orchestra, the Canton Ballet, Players Guild Theatre and VOCI (Voices of Canton, Inc., formerly Canton Civic Opera). The historic Canton Palace Theatre, located on a corner of the Canton Arts District, was a grand dame awaiting her renaissance. But to say the downtown area became sleepy would be kind.
After a long period of dormancy, eager local artists, a risk-taking Chamber of Commerce and a cooperative city administration were ready to throw the paint on the canvas to see what they could create. The renaissance began in earnest about four years ago.
Vicki Boatright is a visual artist and the guild coordinator for the Ohio Arts and Crafts Guild. The nonprofit group moved its offices to Canton in 2007 partly because of the city’s exciting, emerging arts scene. Boatright says the area’s revitalization was sparked in part by the Cultural Center’s shift in philosophy. The center no longer saw itself as just a funding agent and physical facility for Stark County’s big, established cultural art institutions. Instead, its leaders wanted to embrace and encourage all arts and artists in the area. Avant-garde artists now show side by side with nationally recognized artists. Street musicians are as welcome as huge contract performers in Stark County.
“It was a big, important change,” says Boatright. “And bringing in Robb Hankins in 2005 with his unique personality, many interests and energy, became a catalyst for that change. It was not a matter of artists competing with each other, but of collaboration that made this revolution really work.”
Professional artist, furniture designer and fabricator Kevin Anderson was leery of that competition when he decided to move back to his hometown from Orlando several years ago, but was pleasantly surprised.
“This is an honest art community and it is great to live among other artists who inspire you to be better and share ideas,” says Anderson, who was a creative designer for General Motors for five years. “I’m living my dream here.”
Anderson is renovating his gallery, Anderson Creative, in the downtown art district and will have a special exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art in 2010.
Stark County and Canton in particular also had a wealth of buildings that were ripe for re-use. That also provided artists with the space they needed, according to Boatright. Now there are 22 artists’ studios where there had been none, four galleries as opposed to one and 35 pieces of public art instead of five, including creatively painted garbage cans.
In addition, schools, churches, corporations, local businesses, organizations and individuals have all become part of the county’s cultural arts tapestry.
When the extraordinary “Kimono As Art,” showcasing Itchiku Kubota’s silk landscape kimonos, came to the Canton Museum of Art earlier this year, Hankins says the area’s 80 related events took it beyond an exhibit and turned it into a celebration that brought $6 million into the region.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of Kimono ... classes [in schools] were doing art projects; plays about Japan were being performed,” says Christy. “Haiku poems were being set to music and choreographers were looking for inspiration from Japanese movements and methods.”
And art begets art. Canton welcomed the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography in June, one of the latest and most significant newcomers to the area,
located in a historic building on Cleveland Avenue. Other major destinations in the Downtown Canton Arts District include Second April Galerie and Studios, Studio 5, Acme Artists, Art Adventures Studio and Wood Wonders. The district, officially bordered by Cleveland, Market, 2nd N.W. and 6th N.W. streets, is also the home to unique restaurants.
A great way to sample the artistic fare of Stark County is to attend First Friday, a weekly celebration held year round in the Downtown Canton Arts District, usually from 6 to 10 p.m.
“Held on the first Friday of each month, this downtown street party is jam-packed with live music, local art, entertainment from theater and dance groups and special surprises,” says Christy. “When it first started, it drew a couple hundred people. Now there are over 1,000 every month, including in winter.”
Those “surprises” include Middle-Ages-style sword fighting, jump rope teams and the Budweiser Clydesdales.
“Artists are people of passion,” says Hankins. “And when people of passion decide they are going to get something done, they make it happen.”
For more information, call ArtsinStark at 330/453-1075 or visit artsinstark.com