Lisa Harms is the Senior Director of Visual Arts and Education at ArtsQuest. (Courtesy of Lisa Harms)

Community Voices: Access to the arts is essential for all


Lisa Harms is the Senior Director of Visual Arts and Education at ArtsQuest. ArtsQuest’s mission is to provide access to exceptional artistic, cultural and educational experiences using arts and culture as key elements of economic development for our urban communities. ArtsQuest supports this mission via the presentation of performing and visual arts, film, arts education classes and outreach, youth programming and cultural events.

When Musikfest returned in person last year, those of us who work at ArtsQuest were more thrilled than anyone to enjoy the comeback of live music, various fried foods on sticks, dancing and art-making. 

We missed the bands and the celebration of local arts so much. But we soon realized what we missed most of all was the community

The pandemic taught us that the arts are needed more than ever when we feel hopeless, disconnected and lost. We seek out the arts in times of joy and in times of anguish — and we seek out each other, as well. 

It’s often said that art brings a community together, and that is certainly true here in the Lehigh Valley. It’s not just at festivals. It’s at small performances in cozy venues, poetry readings, plays and the murals on our buildings that literally are our landscape. There is inspiration in every neighborhood, artists everywhere who are generous with their time and talents. 

Opportunities exist to engage with the arts every day, every week and at monthly events like First Friday. But does everyone have these same opportunities?

The arts make major economic contributions to society as a whole, and certainly to the residents of Bethlehem. Arts experiences have so many benefits in the areas of social, emotional and psychological well-being. 

But for some members of society, access to the arts is limited. 

That means that many people are missing out on the critical-thinking benefits, curiosity boosting and just pure joy of experiencing the arts. This is why those of us who work at organizations like ArtsQuest are not just obsessed with the arts, but with access to the arts. 

What can we do to make sure these benefits are available to everyone?

We need to kick open the doors to galleries, stages, classrooms, artist studios and other venues so that everyone feels welcomed. We need to invite in students, older adults, individuals with disabilities and anyone who feels inspired to create. We need to remove the cost barriers whenever possible, which is why events like free artist talks, hands-on artist-led workshops and talkbacks are so important. We need to be proactively approachable, radically welcoming. 

All members of our community deserve access to spaces that nurture creativity and foster collaboration.

This might look like free admission to museums, evening and weekend hours for those who work during the day, financial assistance for classes that charge tuition and connecting with artists who are open to community engagement and education. 

Access means empowerment. Young artists must not be thought of as passive consumers of art, but as innovators and leaders. We must give young people in our community the autonomy to create, curate and lead in the arts. 

Arts organizations can’t do this work alone — partnerships are key. Building authentic partnerships with local schools, community organizations and stakeholders helps arts administrators understand the needs and interests of the community. 

Rather than taking a prescriptive approach to presenting the arts, we must find ways to create programs that reflect our neighbors and collaborators. This means being receptive to feedback, making changes to policies and dedicating time and resources to outreach. 

Providing access to the arts is not easy but it is achievable, by working together as a community and holding ourselves accountable. 

Our community is abundant with the arts, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that everyone can be a part of it.

Through festivals such as its flagship event, Musikfest; the Banana Factory Arts Center; and the ArtsQuest Center and SteelStacks arts and cultural campus, ArtsQuest’s programming reaches more than 1.9 million people annually. The organization’s programs and events, approximately 50 percent of which are free to attend, have a combined economic impact of more than $136 million annually in the region. 

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