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Group seeks to keep art education alive

PARKERSBURG — The Mid-Ohio Valley has a name for people who don't like the way the arts are disappearing from the nation's schools: Artsbridge.

Founded in 1985, Artsbridge is a vehicle through which businessmen and women, educators, artists and art supporters throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley region can come together to promote and support the arts, financially and technically, as well as arts education in area schools.

"We initially were the Parkersburg Fine Arts Council, just a bunch of people – close to 250 – with a love of the arts who came together, looking for a better way to support the arts," said Executive Director John Hoffman.

Artsbridge's art education program currently serves more than 14,000 students in six Ohio Valley school districts, with programs that include their "Catalog of Artists & Performers" and the "Artists-on-Tour" series.

"The artists are from Moundsville, Columbus, Parkersburg – anywhere in the vicinity of the Ohio Valley," Hoffman said. "We have 24 artists that schools can select to come in and work with their students. They work with them in dance, music, instruments, songs. A couple of them work with kids on writing songs. It's keeping the arts alive in the Ohio Valley."

Artsbridge brings in three nationally known groups to perform each school year as part of their "Artists-on-Tour" series. This year, for instance, they brought in Mad River Theater Works, a professional touring ensemble that uses music and drama to tell a story – in this case, a special program on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and life during the Great Depression.

"They had songs about what life was like, why people had to move," Hoffman said. "And a couple years ago, we had a program about a gentleman who had been a slave, was freed and worked with Thomas Edison, just an amazing story of how people can make it in this country if they have the opportunity. 

"There's a Japanese lady who's really interesting, she does origami and all kinds of stuff. … It really wows the kids. A guy from Indiana comes in periodically. He makes these big masks and then uses them to bring stories to life in his productions. … They all do something that catches kids' imagination and tell a story. And they all take time to answer questions."

"It's so important" to keep the arts alive in schools, Hoffman added. "(The arts) open patterns of thinking that apply to everything else. We'd like to do more; if we had more money, we could do more."

Artsbridge gets about $40,000 a year from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. The rest of its roughly $220,000 annual budget comes from local foundations, groups and individual donations.

In its first fundraising effort in the 1980s, the United Arts Fund raised $150,000 to support local arts organizations through a grant process and to initiate an arts education program in area elementary schools. Years later, they're still at it, raising well in excess of $125,000 every year to support local arts organizations.

Artsbridge operates with a 25-member board of directors, an advisory council of some 40 people and three part-time employees – an arts education director, office manager and communications assistant – as well as a full-time director.

"We just did an arts festival (Very Spectacular Arts) with West Virginia University-Parkersburg for special needs children from the school districts," Hoffman said. "We had close to 300 volunteers. We're also gearing up for a summer arts festival, Kids' Summer Fun Fest/Concert, an opportunity for children, their parents and guardians to talk to different local artists. Kids can come through and ask questions; the artists will answer. Many times kids don't realize they have a talent for drawing or music. Many never knew they could sing. But we give them the opportunity try, see if it's something they want to do."

The organization has developed programs to expand arts experiences in the community, such as "Heart of the Art is Healing" which pairs local visual artists with area hospitals and care facilities, and the Labyrinth Project, which applied an ancient rubric to a contemporary journey, blending art and spirituality.

During the holiday season, Artsbridge also offers a walking tour of Victorian homes and places of worship. The group also hosts an annual arts auction and a well-attended summer music series featuring weekly summer concerts at Parkersburg City Park. It supports local dance companies, ballet and theater groups.