By Holly Kozelsky

Comments and suggestions from the Martinsville and Henry County area are being taken into account as the Virginia Commission for the Arts begins planning for its 2021-24 session.

Martinsville was one of six localities the VCA is visiting to hold focus-group discussions. The other five are Emory, Lynchburg, Richmond. Hampton and Virginia Beach.

Amy Nisenson, a consultant from Richmond, is managing these sessions. They make up part of a strategic plan the VCA carries out every three years, she said, “a listening tour through the state.”

At the meetings representatives of area arts organizations, schools and the government are invited to give “feedback on what the Virginia Commission for the Arts does well and what they can do better,” she said.

The VCA is the state agency that supports the arts through funding from the Virginia General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts, according to its website. The commission, which was created in 1968, is guided by 13 commissioners appointed to 5-year terms by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. For statewide representation, one or two commissioners are appointed from each Congressional district. A full-time staff of five implements programs and policies.

During the meetings, focus groups of local people analyze the arts under five areas: Arts & Healing, Arts in Education, Creative Economies, General Operating and Individual Artists.

During a 2-hour program recently at Piedmont Arts, each group remained at its table while each of the five facilitators carried her poster-sized notepaper from one table to the next.

Each group jots down its ideas and findings, and at the end of the six sessions, the consulting firm compiles the information and hands it over to the staff and commissioners of VCA. The results will guide the VCA’s planning.

VCA Executive Director Janet Starke said the organization primarily supports the arts through funding, giving out about 750 grants each year to arts organizations, educational organizations, schools and performing and visual arts.

Once the themes, concepts and needs of arts across the commonwealth have been assessed, the VCA will create a strategic plan for the 2021-24 period. That plan will be open for public comment in February. The final plan will go before the board of commissioners, and ultimate approval would be in June, Starke said.

During discussion when her group talked about “Arts in Healing,” teacher Kendra Arnold of K’Dance said she has seen the benefits of physical activity in people’s lives, no matter their ages – and dance is an important artistic form of movement.

Barbara Parker, who had worked with Piedmont Arts in educational programming for many years, agreed, saying, “It’s getting other people out of their comfort zones” to do something other than sit around at home all day.

When it was time to switch topics, Piedmont Arts Executive Director Heidi Pinkston brought over her poster-sized notepad and took Parker’s place. Pinkston was there to get the talk going on “General Operating.”

She said many have complained that getting some types of funding from the VCA is “not worth their time to apply for the amount you get,” and suggestions are being made to reduce the application process.

Also, some arts organizations, such as Piedmont Arts, do not feel they are fairly treated compared to organizations in areas of much higher average incomes, because of an “earned-income” basis of allocation, Pinkston said.

Julie Walters-Steele, executive director of the Reynolds Homestead, said the homestead misses out in “many opportunities” because it just doesn’t have the staff and funding to carry out programs, although there is a strong base of volunteers to help.

A challenge to arts organizations is having a small staff and part-time workers, unable to provide benefits, Walters-Steele said. She suggested that the VCA establish “an insurance collective just for arts organizations and artists.”

Additionally, it would be helpful for VCA “to act as clearing agents in other funding agencies beyond the VCA. I learn about something after the deadline” to apply for it.

Pinkston said when donors make donations, they tend to be earmarked specifically for arts programs, which overlooks the need for not-so-glamorous, required expenses such as the building’s utility bills.

Several area artists sat in discussion at another table. Among them was Rosalynn Villaescusa, who moved to the area three years ago and began working out of Studio 107 two months ago. Richard Toler said he’s been creating with different types of art since he retired and likes to spend Tuesday mornings working in his art when Piedmont Arts has the studio open for seniors. He was there, too.

The process was “very informative” regarding “all the resources that are available and the people who are interested in collaborating together, said Beth Stinnett, the assistant director of tourism for the MHC Economic Development Commission, during a break from the interaction.

Parker said that, despite her high level of involvement in the local arts scene – she also manages the For Alison Foundation, which provides educational arts opportunities for students – she did not realize until these sessions just how many art programs there are dedicated to healing and support.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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