Chelsea Schneider, Innovations Content Manager, Aim
In one Indiana town, a once vacant storefront is a budding cultural center, where residents and visitors alike can enjoy fine art in an unexpected place: a rural community of 1,300 in southeastern Indiana.
Dillsboro leaders see Friendship Gallery as the first step in revitalizing the downtown through the arts. Town leaders hope the gallery, through its high-quality art pieces and connections with musicians, writers and artisans, will foster a new energy in Dillsboro.
And since its opening in 2017, the gallery has been doing just that.
Rebecca Davies, a local artist and gallery manager, tells the story of one patron describing the gallery as walking “off the streets of Dillsboro to feel like you’re in New York City.”
“I feel like that was quite the compliment.”
When town leaders brought the idea of opening an artistic experience to Davies, she remembered thinking it was a great concept but worried about the challenges. Soon after, Davies’ concerns were eased when a bank agreed to sell the town a building for the gallery at a discounted price.
Within months of the purchase, Friendship Gallery opened with a show featuring seven artists who live in a Dillsboro ZIP code.
“People were blown away by the space,” Davies said. “They had no idea there were that many people in Dillsboro who worked as artists on a professional level.”
And the surprises haven’t stopped there. One of the latest exhibits, “Landscape – No Boundaries,” featured unique twists on natural sceneries. Another, “Kids Observe,” showcased drawings by local elementary school students. The newest show, “Being Human: From Portraiture to Concept” will run in June and July and fill the gallery with art depicting humanity in the modern era.
The gallery is adding a new dimension to Dillsboro, said Susan Greco, the town’s economic development director who was a leader on the project. Dillsboro is only 45 minutes away from Downtown Cincinnati, but some people might not know how to navigate a city that size or want to spend the extra money to experience the arts, Greco said.
“Bringing this culture to this small town, it makes it accessible,” Greco said. “It is bringing excitement to the community that didn’t exist before. Our Main Street isn’t very well built up. When I was a young girl, it was all businesses. We didn’t have empty buildings and blighted housing. Dillsboro was a booming little town. This is the beginning. The way I look at it, it’s easy to market the empty building behind me when we got something exciting next door.”
When the town purchased the building, its seller, Friendship State Bank, donated $18,000 back to Dillsboro to help fund the gallery’s operational costs. The goal is to eventually fund future maintenance and utility costs on the building through an artist-in-residency program. The gallery and its programming is part of Dillsboro Arts, a nonprofit created to promote and showcase local art and artists. The latest feature is The Porch, an outdoor music and performance space that opened this spring.
The gallery is strategically positioned near Dillsboro’s Heritage Pointe, a pocket park that acts as a community gathering spot for Dillsboro’s Veteran’s Day program and other events. To fund improvements for the gallery and Heritage Pointe, town leaders have tapped into a series of state grants. A crowdfunding effort through the state’s CreatINg Places program raised $6,000 for audio equipment for the downtown area. With strong community support, Dillsboro met its crowdfunding goal quickly, and the state matched those dollars.
“To me, more important than the money was the buy-in from the community, and people who would step up and walk in with a $20 bill and say we want to be a part of this, too,” Greco said. “It meant a lot.”
This year, Dillsboro received $4,370 through the state’s Quick Impact Placebased Grant program, which supports small quality-of-place projects that make big impacts. The town will use the funding to further its arts focus by transforming an asphalt space into a cultural and educational hub. Local artists will paint murals and a dance floor, and community artisans will craft outdoor furniture.
The gallery is a draw for the Dillsboro community, Town Manager Doug Rump said.
“If we expect millennials to come and live in Dillsboro, we have to have quality of life,” Rump said. “It’s not about a Walmart or a grocery store, even though those things are important. For millennials, those quality-of-life things are important like (the art gallery) and the parks. This is just exciting.”
Along with economic development, Davies, the local artist and retired schoolteacher, wants the gallery to impact the everyday lives of residents. Davies grew up in Dillsboro and had little exposure to the arts until she left for college. Living away from home for the first time, she initially felt insecure about her abilities before gaining confidence in her skills in her early 20s.
Now the first thing Davies points out at the gallery is an art piece she created with worn-down colored pencils she saved from students throughout the years. It tells a story, she says, of how art can positively affect lives.
“I want this place to be the kind of place,” Davies said, “that would have meant the world to me when I was a child.”