Art as change agent

Patrick Fisher, the new Erie Arts & Culture executive director, describes his vision for the future of the organization, including a new initiative that seeks to heal some of Erie’s deepest social ills through the arts.

Patrick Fisher, 33, a Penn State Behrend graduate, was named the executive director of Erie Arts & Culture in September. Erie Arts & Culture provides arts and education grants, funds artists in residencies and issues cultural grants. Its six lead partners are the Erie Art Museum, the Experience Children’s Museum, the Erie Philharmonic, the Erie Playhouse, the Erie County Historical Society and the Flagship Niagara League. This conversation with Fisher has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to a longer version:

I was born in Erie and grew up in rural Crawford County in Cochranton — one stoplight, about 1,200 people. In Cochranton, I didn’t have access to arts and culture, but when I was 15, I learned about Erie’s local music scene, and pretty much every weekend I was in either Erie or Edinboro to attend shows.

Being part of the local music scene was the first time in my life that I experienced the sense of community. And by participating in that scene, I was engaged to broad topics and ideas that I would have never been exposed to growing up in Cochranton. … I’m very thankful for the role that arts and culture played during my developmental years, but at the same time I had to find it. I’m very passionate about arts and culture and making sure that (people) have broad accessibility to those things.

(Fisher explained he lived in Florida for three years before returning to the region to complete his degree at Behrend. He worked for an airline and traveled extensively, lived in Alaska for three years and then eventually moved back to Florida, where he worked for the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.)

When I saw this opportunity arise and I looked at where we’re at in the city’s history, I realized that it’s an all-hands-on-deck-type situation. Where we’re at right now is one of the most important times in Erie’s history. To be a part of the cumulative change is a very big privilege, as well as a responsibility. That’s what drew me back to Erie.

Describe your role.

Erie Arts & Culture acts as the lead development officer more or less for the sector. Our role, primarily, is to make sure that everybody, regardless of their age, race or socio-economic status, has access to the benefits of arts and culture.

The overall role and responsibility for me, as the executive director, is really to make sure that we have a vision of where we’re going and why.

You’re seeing a shift in arts organizations across the nation. Art originally was a communal asset and was intended to be this collaborative thing, where the artist served as the microphone for the community. Over time, it shifted and art became a commodity and it became about those who could afford art, had access to it, and others who didn’t. You’re starting to see this shift from just being about the arts institutions to being about what’s the community impact of the arts sector: How did it change someone’s life? How did it serve to address other issues of the community?

My focus is making sure that people broadly understand the transformational power of arts and culture as it relates to personal, community and economic development. That’s really the push behind the New Horizons initiative, which was recently funded by a $250,000 grant from the Erie Community Foundation.

Talk to me about New Horizons.

I had the great privilege of putting together the application for the Erie Community Foundation. There are a lot of master plans that exist right now. I was devouring them, looking for areas where arts and culture could serve as a vessel to address some of the issues. I determined that we need to focus on stabilizing downtown and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods because I believe what’s good for the core is good for the entire county. We’re looking at how can arts and culture address a number of different issues, such as disparity gaps, segregation, the high-school-to-prison pipeline and food inequality. I do believe that arts and culture can address all of that head-on.

Think about the performing arts — plays that tackle really difficult subjects. Think about pieces of art that really depict where we’re at and act as a mirror to our society. Cultural disciplines can really serve as vessels to deliver change.

Arts and culture, just like any other sector, face a lot of financial and nonfinancial barriers. So we’re looking to overcome that by programming in public spaces, looking at the parks in the city of Erie, our library and community centers and then looking, having the communities define specifically, for themselves, what the major issues are that they feel need to be addressed and then what they’d like to see, as far as cultural disciplines, to address those.

It’s got to be by the community and for the community. There’s going to be a huge element of community engagement involved with this. Once you build the community, once you form the relationships, once you introduce them to the program deliverers, then they’ll feel more comfortable participating in the overall ecosystem.

The objectives behind New Horizons is to not necessarily get bogged down in the final product of the art itself, but how the entire process — being a part of the planning, the design, the creation and then the reflection that comes after it — how that can really help heal a community.

How do you start that process?

We had a meeting (recently) with a number of different stakeholders and partners from the nonprofit and for-profit sectors and municipalities because we can’t go it alone.

The issues that we’re addressing are issues that are outlined in most of the master and strategic plans that I looked at. So it’s looking at how collectively can we all … stitch our efforts together and make sure we’re not wasting resources, (and) truly collaborate to move the needle forward for Erie.

We’re going to be hiring a project manager/community organizer, and it’s very important to me that the person who we hire comes from the communities that we’re going to be serving. (We also need to) leverage some of our partners. We have Bayfront East Side Taskforce, ServErie, Our West Bayfront, the Neighborhood Art House, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, the Booker T. Washington Center. These are all our partners in this initiative, plus the YMCA and city of Erie, who has Michael Outlaw now as their community engagement person. It’s all about leveraging these relationships.

(We need to show if we) collect information from residents, that it is going to be actually utilized. I think one of the reasons individuals get frustrated is they feel like they may be constantly asked questions, but they never actually see … change.

As I look at where we’re at in Erie’s history, if all of the current collaboration, new resources and momentum don’t actually equate to change for everybody, to get folks to buy in and believe in Erie on the next round is going to be impossible. We’re at a very important point in our history and it’s really important that we make sure that this change is equitable and doesn’t leave anybody behind. …

(To plan arts projects,) we’re going to ask simple questions. We’re going to try to figure out what is the community’s tolerance for risk, as well as their tolerance for change. What are their aspirations as a community? What are some of their major fears as a community? What words would they use to describe their neighborhood?

It’s also going to be partially our responsibility to expose communities to other forms of public art. So we’re going to be bringing down a few keynote speakers to let folks know the different forms that public art takes.

(Once we have designated sites for public art on certain priority topics or issues), we’ll put together a request for artists.

How receptive has the community been to these ideas?

Extremely receptive. If you look at our cultural institutions right now, the leaders are all relatively young in their careers. … They have a high tolerance for risk, but also the benefit of all of my counterparts right now is we’ve all lived in areas outside of Erie, so we know what’s possible. …

The community’s ready for it. I think in the past … Erie has had a very pessimistic outlook. I think that we have come to define ourselves by our deficits and we have lost our confidence in Erie and I think that arts and culture can help connect people to place, to get them to be confident in being a resident of Erie again. I’m certain if people aren’t invested emotionally in where they live, they will not invest financially in where they live. So one of the primary focuses of this city is to make Erie a city of choice.

What will emerge first from this initiative?

I think one of the first visible changes is going to be the marketing information. We’re completely rebuilding our website. We’re working on building a collaborative calendar. When you upload an event to one website (like VisitErie and Erie Events), it populates on all of them. (We will be) marketing arts and culture, right alongside our sports, right alongside our outdoor activities.

We’re also looking at either a cultural passport or a neighborhoods guide, something that better talks about what we have. We have Presque Isle, the Erie Zoo, Waldameer Park & Water World, the Millcreek Mall. These are all things that draw a high number of tourists annually. But what information do you see around those that talks about what there is to do in other parts of the county? (We need to make) sure that we’re doing a better job of actually highlighting our assets and connecting people to them.

We’re (also) working with the Erie County data center to do some asset mapping. It’ll look at our public art and historic architecture and then we’re also going to include elements of storytelling. … What are the stories that people have about living in Erie … that they can tell that create emotional bonds between people and place? I think all of that should probably be active in the first and second quarter of 2019. Those will probably be the most visual aspects that the population or that the community can interact with the quickest.

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