Visitor impressed by art offerings

Photo for the Mirror by Isaac Ritchey / Karl Blischke, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, speaks with Altoona community leaders Wednesday afternoon at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

Karl Blischke, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, spent a half-day in Altoona visiting Baker Mansion, the Mishler Theatre, Allegheny Ballet Company and Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art and came away impressed.

Blischke listened to representatives of those and other organizations during an informal panel discussion at SAMA Altoona.

“Everyone should be very proud of what’s being offered here and of all that they have accomplished,” he said. “My takeaway from today is the important role the arts, historic preservation and culture play in a community’s vibrancy.”

Blischke is so impressed he plans to return to Altoona with his wife to see the region in its fall glory and attend Nashville Songs & Stories: Vol. 7 at the Mishler in October.

“I really want to see a performance at the Mishler, and that is right up my alley,” he said.

Blischke said the state arts council recently changed its mission to emphasize the importance of community visual and performance arts and its value as an economic draw; the importance of lifelong learning in the arts; and increased public awareness of how economic, cultural assets and the arts work together for the greater community good.

He cited 2016 statistics that arts and cultural productivity accounted for 170,000 Pennsylvania jobs and generated $23 billion in revenue.

“We recognize how the arts and entrepreneurship work hand in hand for a robust economy and the role of creative industries in revitalization,” he said, adding he sees a vibrancy in Altoona and how various organizations and businesses have created momentum.

Highlights from the comments made by attendees included Cynthia Hershey, chief operating officer of the Railroaders Memorial Museum and Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark; Vanessa Houser executive director of SAMA; and artist/entrepreneur Sarah Vogle of The Clay Cup.

Hershey said the museum partnered with 18 businesses and organizations to bring a World War II exhibit to Baker Mansion and created events so the public experienced a variety of related-themed experiences, such as an Altoona Community Theatre’s “Spies in the Railroad City” show that proved so popular they added an extra performance. In two days, 125 people visited the WWII display and the Blair County History Museum, said Joseph DeFrancesco, executive director of the historical society.

Another collaborative effort, Hershey said, the Summer Sounds Concert Series brings an average of 1,000 attendees downtown on Friday nights and reintroduces them to downtown businesses and shops that stay open late for the event.

Houser noted that through the support of the arts council, SAMA brings artists into schools and does arts outreach to young health care patients with special needs as rural children in need of services are often one to two hours away from specialized services.

Art isn’t just for “creative types,” Vogle said, but can be made accessible in a fun, non-intimidating way as a creative outlet.

“We have one customer who has Down syndrome who started coming in each week and painting tile coasters, which we fire. She started her own business. She might not have thought of that option if art wasn’t accessible to her,” Vogle said.