Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do You, Norristown, Take the Arts. . .?

Norristown High School Marching Band
I'll admit I have no formal training in town planning--just what I've read on the subject, and what I've observed in other towns where I've visited (which may actually be more experience than some of our elected officials have).

Where the arts are concerned, though, I feel at home. Besides being a writer, I have a couple music degrees, and I put in enough hours at my college theater to earn an invitation into the theater fraternity. I've taught music in the Norristown schools, and I've done various music and theater performing all my adult life.

Yesterday, I said Norristown has to overcome one major obstacle before we can flaunt ourselves as an arts destination. Before anyone else can take us seriously as an arts community, we--and I mean everyone in town--MUST make a commitment to the arts. Currently, I don't even see interest in a casual relationship, on any level.

Take the schools--not long ago we had a thriving dramatics program in the high school and middle schools (which gave us John Doyle, artistic director of the Iron Age Theater at Centre Theater). Now when you Google images for "Norristown high school drama" or "theater," you get photos of basketball.

When you Google images for "Norristown high chorus," you get a photo of last year's PMEA choir, hosted at our high school (did that even get a mention in the Herald or Patch?). You also get photos of basketball. No kidding. No photos at all of our chorus. Do we even have one?

As for the band, well, we used to have 60-plus kids in the band. Less than a year ago, the school board voted to yank the funding for the band program, due, they said, to lack of interest. Two teachers (working a lot of extra hours at no pay) and the students themselves managed to swell the numbers of the band enough that the board did finally give them funds, but just enough for the program to barely survive. Last I heard (as of April), the board was only planning on giving the band a third of necessary funds for the coming year.

Why the lack of interest? The kids in our elementary schools LOVE the arts. They enter kindergarten wanting to sing and dance, paint and sculpt. They want to CREATE. They're thrilled at assemblies featuring actors or musicians. The music ensemble I'm in performed at one of the middle schools two years ago, where we sang for 90-100 students in each of 2 workshops. The kids sang along with us, and asked great questions. By the time they graduate high school, though, Norristown students develop an ambivalence, if not an active dislike for the arts. That has to stop, if Arts Hill is going to have a future.

In the rest of our community--many of our churches used to host concerts. Free concerts, or pass-the-plate affairs, accessible to everyone. A few churches still do, maybe more than I know of, but if so, our local media has stopped reporting on them. You don't need to bring in high-priced musicians. I've been in at least a dozen of our churches, and I know we have homegrown talent. I also know of many professional musicians willing to donate their time, or who'll take free-will donations. Choral groups like Norristown Chorale, or one of our gospel choirs, or my own living history music ensemble, would probably be glad to perform. Just ask them.

I can think of lots of other ways for Norristown to embrace the arts. What about displaying the paintings and sculptures of our high school art students in Municipal Hall, or in the theater lobbies? Lunchtime concerts at the Public Square in nice weather? More murals? Shakespeare-in-the-Park each summer (a partnership between our theaters, sponsored by local businesses)?

If you look at the Norristown website, under Arts & Culture, there's 2 pathetic paragraphs that won't inspire anyone to seek out the arts here. Why aren't we trying harder to promote the arts? When people ride through Norristown, our commitment to the arts ought to be evident. Arts events, in the community and in our schools, need to be publicized by the borough, and in the Times Herald and Patch, and on every Norristown Facebook page.

Our council and school board need to lead by their actions AND their own examples. Let's see more elected officials at performances around town and at our schools. If our officials don't embrace the arts in Norristown, VOTE THEM OUT. (I'll say more on this closer to this year's election.)

I should add that the theaters are already doing their part in bringing the arts to the Norristown community, with childrens' programs, summer camp, and pay-what-you-can performances. Take advantage of them.

Do you know of arts events in town that everyone should know about? Or, do you have an idea how we can bring more arts to our community and, especially, to our kids?


  1. I one of the groups willing to donate their time is the Colonial Revelers. You can find us at www.HistoricalHarmonies.org.

  2. Sharing a comment from Doug Seiler:

    Norristown used to host, thanks to the hard work of Ms. Dee Ashe and others, a battle of the bands - where a couple of bands from Historically Black Colleges, like Norfolk State, would come to town and blow the lid off of Roosevelt Field. Norristown's band would play as a warm-up. (For the record, I'm not a marching band geek (that's for sure), but these performances were spectacles!)

    Sure love to see that short-lived tradition make a come back.

    As for arts in general... Arts Hill needs a boost. Two theatres with two marquees...pretty good progress, but what is needed is other places to go to fill in the gaps. The Arts Council's annual block-party, offers something, but it really doesn't cut it as a game changer.

    What's needed is something bigger, bolder and more ever-present.

    Millville, New Jersey's "Pioneer Arts Program" helped launch their Arts District. It could certainly work in Norristown...and now that $466k in DCED $$ have been diverted from the ill-fated Pennrose housing project, I'd like to suggest that folks start making noise to Council about having a public-airing of how best to spend that money. My vote is for a good deal of it to go towards building the downtown's night-life.

    I can't leave the topic of Arts Hill without mentioning the empty and visually-compelling 1853, Gothic Revival prison that sits at the top of the hill. It has the ability to act as a catalyst for real change like nothing else in town. Its potential is perhaps so over the top, that too few seem to notice. Sure it will cost money...but it can be done in stages and the County should be taking the appropriate steps to hit one out of the park.

    1. Back in the late '70s, Norristown High used to host area marching bands in a similar band show every August at Roosevelt field.