Tyler Brings Art to Downtown


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The 3,300-foot Gallery Main Street hosts a juried show every six weeks supported by the Downtown Tyler Arts Coalition.. The gallery is a key component in Tyler’s development of a strong arts and culture atmosphere in the downtown area.

Photo by Tom Geddie

The arts are proving to be good business for many towns and cities across the Upper East Side of Texas and the United States.

Winnsboro is the only officially designated Cultural Arts District – since 2009 – in Northeast Texas, and a number of other towns are beginning to focus at least part of their development efforts on the arts, ranging from the monthly Third Friday Arts Festival and Art Walk in Winnsboro and the second Saturday 279 Art Jam shared by Ben Wheeler and Edom to periodic efforts to put arts into local retail businesses in a bunch of towns as well as many annual festivals.

Among the most recent successes is the Tyler 21 project, which aims to turn the downtown square area into an arts center for the city and the region with its “new” Liberty Hall, its Main Street Gallery, and an outdoor events venue plus several nearby museums and one of the most activity-busy libraries in the region. Even a couple of the downtown retail businesses regularly display art.

Why the arts, and who benefits?

Numerous studies show that cultural tourism – primarily but not exclusively the arts – is the leading reason cited by travelers for visiting a community and is claimed to be the fastest growing economic market in the country; 86 percent of adult Americans say they’ve participated in arts activities in the past year. Arts education is also a critical part of preparing children for the future; many industry leaders say they want employees who possess skills provided by a comprehensive arts education including increased cognitive development, motivation, and problem-solving skills.

“The arts – visual arts, dance/performance, film/theater, and music – were determined to be a really good tool to help with revitalization downtown,” said Susan Guthrie, managing director of external relations for the City of Tyler. “Seattle and Portland are good examples of downtowns that really were going nowhere, and through the arts got a lot of involvement in the community and drew people downtown, and that attracts retail and housing. One of the goals (of Tyler 21) is to get additional people downtown.”

Other cities across the nation are finding successes with arts in the mix, from A to W if not yet all the way to Z. Some examples include Albuquerque, New Mexico; Aspen, Colorado; Beaufort, South Carolina; Carmel, California; Hilton Head, South Carolina; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Key West, Florida; Moscow, Idaho; Quincy, Illinois; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Taos, New Mexico; Telluride, Colorado; and Woodstock, Vermont; 

The arts help rebuild local tax bases, restore property values, provide developers and entrepreneurs with investment incentives, and restore civic pride and direction that began, in some cases, to fade because of the downtown declines that began in the 1950s and 1960s when more people began moving to larger cities. Vibrant downtowns also help create jobs, incubate small businesses, reduce sprawl, and increase residents’ options for goods and services.

A book, “Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown,” by Roberta Brandes Gratz points out that a broad sense of purpose needs to be incorporated into these plans.

Arts projects with the best chances for success in revitalizing underutilized downtowns are ones that target the local community as well as visitors, she wrote. The ones that succeed “reflect the personality and character of their local place and reject a formulaic approach. Underused buildings and historic theaters that are renovated for an arts-related purpose become creatively woven into a revitalized area and have an excellent opportunity to spawn adjoining entrepreneurial investment in the form of restaurants, art galleries and art schools.”

Such successful efforts also involve partnerships among local government, chambers of commerce, the private sectors, civic organizations, and other key institutions.

It doesn’t just happen; it takes a lot of work.

Much of that research and those findings sound like the blueprint for Tyler 21, adopted by the city council in 2007 as a 20-year comprehensive plan for what citizens wanted the city to focus on.

“That’s the legacy we want to build for our children and grandchildren. There was unprecedented city involvement, town hall meetings, focus groups, and surveys to represent the common will of the people,” Susan said. “Since then, we’ve been actively implementing the plan and as we come up on the fifth anniversary of the plan we’re getting ready to launch the process early in 2012 to see if it needs adjustments.”

The plan focused on several subjects including traffic mitigation, parks and recreation open spaces, and revitalizing downtown.

The city created the tax increase reinvestment zone, bought downtown land and the old Liberty Theater, and leased a building for Gallery Main Street. The Fair Foundation donated two buildings and a parking lot. It also raised $1.2 million in private funding for the theater’s renovation and now offers a variety of performing arts from movies to plays to live music, and more.

In 2010, the city adopted the Industry Growth Initiative as part of Tyler 21.

“A bunch of community groups got behind it – many different elected bodies and commissions basically—as a strategy for transforming our community from traditional manufacturing to an innovation economy with higher paying, creative types of jobs that lead to higher quality of life for residents,” Susan said. “One key component is development of a strong arts and culture atmosphere that attracts those sorts of businesses. This is really important to our future as a destination place and for identifying downtown as a hub of the community. These two plans have worked together to set the direction for the city in terms of our efforts to revitalize downtown.”

The 300-seat Liberty Hall is the newest showpiece, officially opening in September this year (although there were a couple of earlier, “soft” opening events). The first big event featured Texas blues singer/pianist Marcia Ball, a four-time Grammy nominee and winner of eight Blues Music Awards and two 2009 Living Blues readers’ poll awards for female blues artist of the year. That was followed on September 30 by Tyler’s own ethereal-pop band Eisley and on October 1 with the theatrical “If You Give A Moose A Muffin.”

The 3,300-foot Gallery Main Street opened in November 2010, hosting a juried show every six weeks supported by the Downtown Tyler Arts Coalition.

Four nearby museums – the Cotton Belt Depot, Discovery Science Place, and Smith County Historical Society’s Carnegie History Center plus the Goodman-LeGrand House on the northern edge of downtown – also are important parts of the cultural mix, as is the Tyler Public Library.

The area around the downtown square hosts its quarterly art walk from 4-8 p.m. on December 8 with businesses sharing original artwork, music, light snacks, street performers, special performance by FLYkids, and more. At the same time, the downtown museums all host open houses. There’s also an ongoing, half-mile “history walk” where pedestrians can read stones embedded into the sidewalks around the outer perimeter of the square, each dedicated to a person, place, or event that’s made a difference for Tyler.

The square hosts other events including Festival on the Square each October that drew 2,500 people to hear Texas musicians, and Miranda Lambert’s “Paws for the Cause” festival drew 5,000 people this summer.

At least two downtown retail businesses also are regularly displaying art, too. One is Salon Verve and one is Downtown Coffee Lounge.

For more information about the downtown Tyler arts and culture scene, call 903.593.6905 or go to www.downtowntylerarts.com.

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