Using art to transform a community

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A famous artist once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

While those words can apply to any artistic expression, this sentiment also pertains to how we – as a society —  judge what might or might not be worthy of our time, attention and resources. If something is not considered “of value,” then it doesn’t attract the investment necessary to increase its worth over time.

It’s true of artwork and it’s true of communities that have suffered from the kind of neglect that creates a spiral of decline from which few places can recover.

For many in our region, the City of Chester represents such a place. From high crime rates to crushing levels of poverty, Chester has been written off by people more times than anyone would care to count.

Except for the people who call Chester home. For us, we see promise where others see peril. We see success where others only see failure. We see a future where resiliency and resourcefulness will ultimately win the day.

That’s why nearly four years ago, we joined with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) to launch an initiative called, “Chester Made” which seeks to use arts and culture as a way to revitalize our community.

It all started with a series of story gathering sessions in which folks, connected to Chester, came to tell their stories of what makes our city so special. More than 350 residents came out. They generated over 140 stories and 120 surveys enabling us to create a cultural asset map that has helped serve as a strategic planning tool in our work.

But sometimes, you don’t need a map to point you in the right direction.

For me, “Chester Made”  is an affirmation of what has been my lifelong dedication to the city that has formed who I am as an artist and entrepreneur.  For decades, despite its struggles, Chester has always been big enough to support a thriving arts community. Led by William Dandridge in the 1950’s, who was known as “the Father of Arts and Culture in the City of Chester,” art and culture helped to define the character of this city. While Dandridge was a giant in our cultural landscape, to me he was simply my “Uncle Bill.” He and others served as role models to me and countless others making their mark today including award-winning rapper/producer Jahlil Beats and graphic artist Kenny “Art Monster” Hunt. These and others to come will add to the cultural legacy of this troubled, but nurturing town.

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