PERMISSION GRANTED: Be a Voice for the Arts

Two weeks ago, I attended the dedication of five murals installed on the exterior wall of the LCCC—Donley Center in downtown Allentown.

There was excitement among the crowd as Donley Center Director Maryanell Biggica welcomed guests and touted the power of the arts to bring people together. The murals, celebrating the theme of diversity and inclusion, feature the work of five local artists, Pedro LeDee Jr., Albert Negron III, Alex Ortiz, Corey Reifinger, and Camille Stanley. 

City of Allentown’s Community and Economic Development Director Leonard Lightner lauded the arts as an economic development engine. He stated that the City of Allentown was committed to filling the city with art. He then read the five artist statements to the crowd. Amidst all this enthusiasm and promise, however, was the noticeable silence from the artists.

After the remarks, I sought the artists out and congratulated them for their work, since the Lehigh Valley Arts Council had funded this mural project through the Pennyslvania Partners in the Arts grant program. I asked them why they didn’t speak for themselves.

Evidently, they had originally planned to present as a group, but one of their fellow artists was not able to attend so they opted out. Youth and unfamiliarity prevailed. I encouraged them to consider the value of speaking up, especially in the context of public art. Wearing the mantel of an artist comes with great responsibility since artists play a crucial role in shaping the future. Their perspective matters because they highlight the intrinsic value of the creative process.

Certainly, I agree with officials who recognize that the arts are good for business. (The Arts Council has administered five Arts & Economic Prosperity studies since 1995.) But the arts are so much more. They nourish the soul of a community. In an increasingly complex world, they can serve as a platform to address serious issues like global warming, social justice, and diversity and inclusion.

On the other hand, the economic impact argument is limited by the viewpoint that art is a commodity, which is bought and sold. Boiled down, economic impact measures the fact that I went out for dinner after the event and ate a hamburger. 

We all need reminding occasionally not to take the creative process for granted. An investment in the arts is an investment in people and in the relationships that build our community.

Randall Forte
Executive Director
Lehigh Valley Arts Council


Festival UnBound is a model of inclusivity and accessibility

When Touchstone Theatre began talking two years ago about staging a major festival to celebrate its hometown of Bethlehem and commemorate 20 years of change since its groundbreaking Steel Festival, it had a huge vision.

It had a vision of creating original art designed to spark conversation. It had a vision of debating, discussing and generating ideas about how to create a bright future for Bethlehem. And, as is always the case for Touchstone, it had a vision of accessibility and inclusivity — bringing together people of all races, classes, ages and abilities to accomplish its goals and enjoy its creations.

All of those things will happen Oct. 4-13 during Festival UnBound – so named to represent the idea that the city and its people can work together to create their future any way they want now that they are “unbound” from Bethlehem Steel. Festival UnBound will feature two dozen events, including nine original theatrical productions, as well as street spectacles, visual art, music and opportunities for conversation. Events are both ticketed and free and located in various venues, mostly in Bethlehem.

To be accessible and inclusive, Touchstone collaborated with many groups in the community.

Steelworkers were tapped once again to inform “Prometheus/Redux,” a sequel to “Steelbound,” which in 1999 opened eyes and minds to the legacy of the Steel in Bethlehem and the need to start thinking about a future without it.

Scholar Seth Moglen of Lehigh University was tapped to join Festival UnBound director Bill George, a Touchstone founder and ensemble member, to explore the hidden history of Bethlehem’s birth in “Hidden Seed: Bethlehem’s Forgotten Utopia.”

Teens in Bethlehem high schools were tapped to create an original work, “Starry-Eyed,” that gives youth the opportunity to confront their fears and have a say about their future.

Bethlehem fourth graders were tapped to create art expressing their hopes and dreams for the future.

The African-American community was tapped to organize an afternoon of cultural awareness called “Homecoming,” featuring spoken word poets, music, African drumming, ethnic food and vendors and speakers on health and equity issues.

The Latino community was tapped to work with Pregones Theatre, New York’s pre-eminent Latinx theater collective, to create “Embracing Bethlehem/ Abrazo a Belen,” featuring stories and songs addressing the future.

Environmental activists were tapped to work with Agile Rascal Bicycle Touring Theatre, which will ask audiences to take a wild ride, literally, through Bethlehem with them in a search for their best life in “To Hunt a Wild Utopia.”

Autistic children and homeless people were looped in to create art that gives them a voice.

The LGBTQ community helped inform the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre production “The Secret,” an exploration of the life of Bethlehem native Hilda Doolittle, the celebrated feminist writer and LGBQ icon.

Female veterans were tapped to create a performance called “Forward March: The Future of Our Warriors,” telling their stories to help bridge communication between veterans and civilians.

Inclusivity also means accessibility – creating the means for people of all incomes and abilities to attend the events.

To that end, many events are free, ticket prices are affordable and those events that require tickets include the opportunity to purchase Pay What You Will tickets.

All venues are wheelchair accessible, with the exception of “Hidden Seed,” which is being presented in the historic Single Sisters House. Because of that, the final performance of “Hidden Seed” will be presented at the wheelchair accessible PBS39.

Touchstone worked with the Center for Vision Loss to create large print programs for two musical events – “A Joyful Noise,” featuring the Bach Choir in collaboration with other local choral groups, and “Poets, Troubadours and Troublemakers,” a collaboration with Godfrey Daniels and singer-songwriter Anne Hills to create original music reflecting the spirit of Festival UnBound.

For the blind and visually impaired, Touchstone worked with the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living and with support from the Lehigh Valley Arts Council’s Arts & Access Always program to provide audio description and open captions at a number of events.

They include:

  • Audio description at “The Secret” at 1 p.m. Oct. 6 at Touchstone Theatre.
  • Open captions and audio description at “Prometheus/Redux” at 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts.
  • Open captions and audio description at “Hidden Seed” at 8 p.m. Oct. 10 at PBS39.
  • American Sign Language for the discussion during the Community Dinner at 2 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Ice House.

Festival UnBound represents inclusivity and accessibility at its finest.

Jodi Duckett
Festival UnBound Volunteer


Maya Rodgers: Arts Traveler

Reverse culture shock can be all too real. Landing at the Philadelphia Airport on a gloomy, rainy day, much like the weather I had left behind in London, had me feeling all different emotions about returning home to Pennsylvania. It may have been from the 16+ hours I had been traveling (starting at London Heathrow, transferring in Ireland, and finally returning to Philadelphia), but I started to feel butterflies in my stomach as we landed on the wet runway.

Investopedia describes this feeling best:

“[reverse culture shock is] readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar”.


This sense of familiarity of a place I called home mixed with uncertainty tangled with my emotions as I collected my massive suitcase from baggage claim. 

Despite the jet lag, I was happy to see my friends and family that I had missed these past few months. There was also a part of me that didn’t want to be back. I had experienced a lot while I was away and I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. Would any of my experiences at home live up to those I had these past few months? 

Those experiences had begun when just a few months earlier, I had arrived in London to study abroad with my fellow classmates from Ithaca College. Along with 100 other students, I studied arts and culture classes in a narrow, six-story Victorian style house in the heart of the city. I began to explore my new surroundings, forming a new sense of who I was, a sophisticated and cultured student taking on every adventure that came her way.

Immediately, I was immersed in the art world of London and Europe. Two of my classes, Photography and British Art and Architecture, involved many field trips to nearby London museums.  With the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Britain just a walk or tube (London’s famous subway system) ride from school, I was able to dive deep into the world of Impressionism, Baroque painting, and Roman architecture. Applying what I learned in the classroom to real-life studies of paintings and sculpture was such an amazing experience. 

When I wasn’t walking or riding the tube to museums, I was flying to them. In fact, with low-budget airfare and student prices, I was able to visit 10 countries during my time spent abroad. I visited Ireland, Sweden, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Scotland, and of course, England. Museums, most often free or discounted, were highlighted attractions on my itinerary. I saw it all: The Louvre in Paris, The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Swedish Design Museums, the Kunstsammlung in Düsseldorf and even churches, cathedrals, and Greek ruins that took my breath away. On my spring break to Italy and Greece, I saw more art than I thought possible. It was phenomenal being in the same room as the Statue of David, or gazing up at the Parthenon from a street market  in Athens. Old and new cities offered architectural skylines that rivaled any I had seen before. Every country made me stop in my tracks admiring their spectacular views, learning about their interesting people, and tasting their delicious food. 

My new London home gave me joy in performing arts and British history. My flat (the posh British word for an embarrassingly small student apartment), was also in the cultural heart of the city, and with short walk down the street, I was in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Walk about a mile in the other direction, and I was in Nottinghill, exploring the colorful buildings and Portobello Road Market with all its antiques and vendors. I was living and breathing in so much culture and feeling more myself than I had in awhile. Sculptures and street art and temporary art galleries in subway stations were hard to miss, and everyday felt like a new adventure. It was a whirlwind five months, and I was sad to be leaving this new life behind, to leave this person I had become. 

When I landed back in the United States, after months of throwing myself at any and all art exhibitions and events, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared that I would lose all that I had become, that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do the things I had done now that I was back in Pennsylvania, where corn fields and cows were more common than ancient ruins.  I wasn’t sure where art fit into my life now that I was stateside. Driving home to Allentown, my little city north of Philadelphia, I felt an impending sense of dissatisfaction. Who was I now? 

The person I had been in Europe was one who was cultured.  I went on solo trips to museums on my days off or spent time sketching in front of famous paintings. I traveled solo to Düsseldorf, Germany for the day and climbed a sculpture above the Kunstsammlung museum (an architectural feat in itself, the installation of steel mesh-netting and five air-filled spheres is suspended 25 meters above the museum’s lobby for visitors to climb and explore, created by Thomas Sereceno). I went to musical performances in the West End, sometimes getting the worst seat in the theatre but loving every second of it anyways. I was at my peak for creative inspiration. But now I was home. What did that mean for me now?

Soon the readjustment of being home fell into routine. Without the ease of public transportation or cheap flights, I felt stuck. I had seen so much in the world and now I was back in Allentown, a place I also call home, but a place many of my British friends and professors couldn’t locate on a map. Sure, it was a city, but did it have the tube? Was there a famous palace just a few minutes walk away? What famous paintings would I sketch?

Attending my highschool’s Visual and Performing Arts Awards, while watching my sister receive a Scholastic Gold Key for Ceramics, I began to catch a glimpse of the person I had been in London, and recognized the person I knew I was. Years ago, I too had been on that stage, receiving awards for my work in highschool. I remembered the teachers who had shaped me and taught me what it meant to be an artist. I felt this sense of identity that I had been looking for since returning home. While I couldn’t explore the massive halls of The Louvre in Paris, I could still appreciate the immense amount of artistic and cultural experiences here in the Lehigh Valley that had shaped my love for art from the start. I was an artist, and I could continue to be the cultured, experienced traveler I was in Europe even though I was back in Pennsylvania. 

“I was an artist, and I could continue to be the cultured, experienced traveler I was in Europe even though I was back in Pennsylvania”. 

Interning with the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, I’ve returned to the artistic world of the Lehigh Valley that shaped me as an artist. From the halls of Parkland High School where I studied clarinet, photography, and graphic design, to the city of Bethlehem where I shot my first concert photographs at Musikfest, I realized  that many of the things I had experienced while abroad were right here in front of me. While nothing in the Lehigh Valley will ever compare to the ancient ruins of the Parthenon in Athens or the Duomo in Florence, there is so much that the community has to offer and that same feeling of cultural exploration can still be found within my own identity as I look for new ways to expand my knowledge and appreciation. 

After learning about Lehigh Valley Art Council’s ARTix Passport to the Arts (a buy one ticket, get one free offer to twenty arts and culture organizations in the Lehigh Valley), I was able to go to a musical at Muhlenberg Theatre, beginning my new cultural exploration in the Lehigh Valley. Just as I had visited museums all across Europe, ARTix allows patrons to visit arts and cultural organizations all across the Lehigh Valley and bring a friend for free. Similar to the student friendly deals I had taken advantage of  while traveling to Ireland, Amsterdam, and Greece, I was grateful to see these budget-friendly deals in my own backyard.  

Since their summer productions were in full swing, I chose to see Anything Goes, which promised “breathtaking melodies and wickedly clever lyrics by one of Broadway’s all-time great songwriters [Cole Porter]”. It seemed like the perfect choice, with its close location to home and my growing love for musicals after exploring them in the West End of London.

 Anything Goes was a spectacular production, complete with tap dancing and show tunes that had me humming on my drive home. It had me reminiscing about my days in musical theatre (from the pit orchestra) and making a mental note to visit a production next summer when I was home. 

Studying and traveling abroad has taught me a greater appreciation for different cultures, and with that, the immense world of art and how I shape my identity around it. 


A Lehigh Valley Case Study in the Making

Studies have shown that learning in the arts contributes to strong academic performance, higher rates of literacy and improved problem solving skills.  The benefits stem, however, from a student’s consistent engagement with the arts. They are the results of a comprehensive strategy to measure outcomes in many grade levels and over a considerable length of time.

Has there ever been a long range arts education study in the Lehigh Valley?

Attempts have been made but never completed. There have been excellent arts residencies and programs created but they often occurred in isolation—until now.

The Zoellner Arts Center, Bethlehem Area School District and the City of Bethlehem have embarked on a new district- and community-wide initiative, Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child (AGC), creating a long-range arts education plan for the 14,000 students in grades K-8.

AGC is a program of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that chose Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as the 24th site, and the first in Pennsylvania. This undertaking offers the promise for a future Lehigh Valley case study on the impact of arts in education.

Is the Valley up for the task?

A lot of groundwork has been laid. For two decades, arts-in-education practices have been driven by cultural organizations. Severe budget constraints led schools to cut arts programming, and cultural nonprofits were encouraged to take up the slack by replacing what was lost. Many Lehigh Valley cultural nonprofits have established relationships with local foundations and corporations to fund a variety of individual arts programs. On a statewide level, the Commonwealth provides grant funding through the Earned Income Tax Credit Program and the PA Council on the Arts Arts-in-Education Partnership.

What has been missing locally, however, is any coordination of measurement within a district or regional level. Any Given Child, Bethlehem provides an opportunity to track what we learn collectively.

The program has brought together 50 community leaders from over 25 organizations in the region to help shape the vision and the plan. According to Lehigh University’s Andrew Cassano, AGC’s Coordinator & Managing Partner, “the Program is designing a strategic plan to provide equitable access to arts resources in the classroom and outside of the classroom.” There is talk of a possible future expansion into the school districts in Allentown and Easton.

How can you get involved?

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at 9:00am, Any Given Child, Bethlehem will announce the plan and vision for arts in the schools at Nitschmann Middle School. If you count yourself as an advocate for arts-in-education, you should call your friends, plan to show up and be a voice for the arts.

Randall Forte is the Executive Director of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council and serves on AGC’s governance committee.

Arts Advocate

Volunteerism is Arts Advocacy

The value of the arts in a community is best reflected in the strength of volunteerism that exists. In the Lehigh Valley, that impact is tremendous. The 2017 Arts & Economic Prosperity Study 5 reported that 6,952 volunteers donated 323,354 hours to 98 arts nonprofits in 2015.

Across the rich, culturally diverse landscape of the Lehigh Valley, arts administrators all agree that their organization couldn’t exist without volunteers. I sat down with several of them to speak about their relationships with this valuable asset. 

How do volunteers and the work that they do benefit your organization? 

“The 90-member choir is entirely composed of volunteer singers who donate more than 10,000 hours of their time each year for rehearsals, concerts, and festivals. Others help with mailings, ushering at concerts, and cleaning up after performances.They are the eyes and ears we need to make sure the audience experience goes as smoothly as it can.” 

— Renee James, Director of Marketing, Bach Choir of Bethlehem

“We are a completely volunteer organization. Without them we can’t function.” 

Elena Shackleton, President, Lehigh Art Alliance

“The Dance Exchange is made up of three co-directors and an intern, all of whom work together to recruit professional dancers and put together master classes and festivals. Volunteers allow us to put on the programing that we offer. They help a lot with festivals, orchestration, t-shirt sales, transport services, and photography.”

Sarah Carlson, Treasurer and Media Director, Lehigh Valley Dance Exchange

“Touchstone Theater benefits from a variety of volunteer services, everything from serving on the Board of Directors to ushering at shows and assisting in the cafe. Many actors are also recruited to volunteer for larger community shows.”

Lisa Jordan, Managing Director, Touchstone Theatre

“The Storytelling Guild is made up of professional and amateur storytellers who love to listen to other stories or perform their own. Our volunteers help arrange partnering events with Godfrey Daniels and local libraries. They also help with daily tasks, such as maintaining the website and social media platforms, creating posters and videotaping events.”

Charles Kiernan, President, Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild

What attracts volunteers to your organization?

“The volunteers themselves are telling me that they are coming because of the music—and they come and they stay. Some who are new to the area often want to become more involved and meet new people. They forge new friendships with each other that last outside of volunteer work.”

Renee James

“One of the greatest opportunities given to volunteers for the Lehigh Art Alliance is the elevation and education received from other artists. Many artists volunteer their time to help people learn about work opportunities and encourage and educate other artists about the creative process.”

Elena Shackleton

“We think of ourselves as a family of tellers. There is a great amount of mutual support between our members and for the Guild. Storytellers enjoy and appreciate the camaraderie.”

Charles Kiernan

“Many of the volunteers who come to Touchstone have an affiliation for the theater and a general passion for the art of theatre.”

Lisa Jordan

“Volunteers get to attend 4-6 master classes a year—free of charge—and work with professional choreographers from around the Lehigh Valley.”

Sarah Carlson

How do you recruit volunteers?

“The Dance Exchange will advertise when volunteers are needed, but many volunteers approach them on their own time asking about how they can still be involved.”

Sarah Carlson

“I include my contact information in concert and festival pamphlets and e-newsletters. All volunteers are additionally recognized in their programs and at events and festivals.”

Renee James

“Touchstone allows many people to get in contact with volunteering by offering opportunities on their website and through their volunteer newsletter.”

Lisa Jordan

Giving of one’s time to a cultural nonprofit positively impacts both the individual and the organization. There are more than 125 cultural nonprofits in the Lehigh Valley, representing the performing, visual, media and literary arts. If you are looking to connect with the arts community and fuel your passion for the arts, the Lehigh Valley offers many choices.

Testimonials compiled by Lauren Balbierer, Intern at Lehigh Valley Arts Council, Student at Moravian College


Holiday Traditions Made in the Arts

Holiday Traditions FinalTake a break from gift-giving and the retail overload and truly enjoy the holiday season! Here are festive holiday arts happenings that will warm your heart and remind you to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us this time of year.
The perfect time to start a holiday tradition is NOW — and what better way to do it than with the ARTS!

DANCE:Image result for repertory dance theatre nutcracker


EXHIBITIONS:Photo of holiday art mart







Remember to use your ARTix Passport this holiday!ARTix Ad for Web


Joyful Noise

Choral singing has always been a moving experience for me and it’s an honor to sing in Lehigh University’s outstanding choral program. But when Choral Arts Director Steven Sametz invited the aptly named Joyful Noise chorus to sing with us in our spring 2017 concerts, it brought an emotional response even Bach and Brahms couldn’t deliver.

The New Jersey-based Joyful Noise is 50 adults with physical and neurological challenges. It was formed in 2000 by conductor Allison Fromm and her sister Beth, who also sings in the choir, and has made news around the country with its moving performances . The choir is less about musical discipline and more about uninhibited enthusiasm. And the effect on an audience is electric.

After months of rehearsals and hard work, Lehigh’s singers got the Joyful Noise lesson loud and clear: It’s not about the notes but the shared experience of producing magic by doing something you love.

Joyful Noise Image

Alice Parker, a conductor and composer who’s been called the dean of American choral music, accompanied Joyful Noise to a pre-concert rehearsal and explained the mystique of this choir: “Music does something different from every other method of communication. It’s literally a bridge to bring us together.

“Singing together is the most approachable of the arts,” she told us. “With so many new ways of communication, we don’t value singing enough. The function of song is to open us up to one another – it’s a big challenge in the world today.”

It was during this rehearsal that I got a preview of the emotional high ahead when we would all join together in an upbeat program of world music and spirituals. When the choirs combined for the second half of the program, Choral Arts singers donned t-shirts that matched those worn by Joyful Noise.

The mother of one of the singers said, “The choir helps us learn to relate to a disabled child as a real person.” The experience brought home to me how easy it is to erase the “otherness” we sometimes feel when we see someone who is differently abled than ourselves.

Conductor Fromm hailed the transformative affect singing can have not only on her choir members but on the audience. Quoted in Harvard Magazine, Fromm said: “We always hope that when people hear us sing, they take away an inspiration to bring music to people in their lives…people with disabilities, people in nursing homes, children who have disadvantages or challenges – to see how meaningful it is to come together and make music.”

by Kathy McAuley, Member and Volunteer of Lehigh Valley Arts Council