NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson visits Southeast Ohio to support local arts initiatives

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NELSONVILLE, Ohio (WOUB) – Last night, local, state, and national representatives gathered at Stuart’s Opera House for a public discussion on the impact and importance of the arts in Southeast Ohio.

This meeting was the final event in a day-long visit by National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, Ph.D. Earlier in the day, Jackson visited Passion Works Studio and the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Athens.

Joining Jackson on the panel were Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Donna S. Collins, Ohio State Representative Jay Edwards, Ohio Brew Week and Athens Block Party Director Brandon Thompson, and Stuart’s Opera House Executive Director Melissa Wales.

Key topics discussed included the intersection of public arts and health, legislative and local support for arts education, and recognizing the unique cultural and creative strengths of Southeast Ohio.

Town Hall at Stuart's Opera House on June 27, 2024. (l-r) State Representative Jay Edwards, NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson,Ohio Arts Council Executive Dir. Donna S. Collins, Executive Dir. of Stuart's Opera House Melissa Wales, and Brandon Thompson.
Town Hall at Stuart’s Opera House on June 27, 2024. (l-r) State Representative Jay Edwards, NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Donna S. Collins, Executive Director of Stuart’s Opera House Melissa Wales, and artist and entrepreneur Brandon Thompson. [Photo by Scotty Hall, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts]
Arts and health

Panelists highlighted the growing recognition of art and music as powerful tools for physical and psychological healing.

Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Donna S. Collins referred to the Surgeon General Advisory released last year, specifically addressing “the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection” in the United States.

Jackson said the declaration recognized that people being disconnected and isolated was “as harmful as chain smoking, as harmful as other diseases physically and mentally.”

She then cited the work of the Sound Health Institute, a NEA initiative promoting research on the impact of music on health and wellness, including pain management and dementia treatment. She also highlighted NEA’s collaborations with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to explore the role of arts in healing post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.

On a state level, Ohio State Representative Jay Edwards emphasized the importance of integrating arts into mental health solutions, noting the recent licensing of music and art therapy in Ohio. Edwards said this is a “step in the right direction.”

“Step number one is the first step of making sure (art and music therapists) can actually get a fee for that service that they’re providing,” said Edwards. “But it also is another tool in the tool belt as we’re facing this mental health crisis, to allow art and music therapy to be a part of that solution.”

Arts education in Southeast Ohio

The conversation also looked at the impact of arts education in rural communities. Stuart’s Opera House offers various arts education programs, including summer camps and school-year initiatives, aiming to engage students and their families and foster a strong connection to the arts.

Stuart’s Executive Director Melissa Wales discussed the impact of the capital campaign completed in 2017 that led to the creation of a dedicated third-floor education center at Stuart’s Opera House.

Before the completion of the campaign, Wales said students and instructors had to find “nooks and crannies in the opera house, in the theater, in the basement, wherever – to have arts education.”

Wales also noted the success of Stuart’s current arts-focused summer camp, which boasts an enrollment of over 40 students. However, she pointed out that arts education at Stuart’s has increased significantly since the 2017 expansion, to the point that the program has outgrown the 2017 expansion.

Wales also emphasized the responsive nature of Stuart’s approach to arts education on a broad level. In the past, the organization has provided salaries for art teachers at local public schools until local school district budgets could fund those salaries again.

Currently, Stuart’s supports the Nelsonville York Drama Club by providing instructors, rehearsal space, and hosting their annual production.

“(T)his stage, this theater (…) has such a long and storied history of incredible performances, but also community events,” Wales said. “And I think that’s sort of part of our mission as a space for public expression because (…) I think our arts education program has been critical in letting our community know that yes, you belong here.”

Letting Appalachian Ohio speak for itself

Brandon Thompson, (Director of Ohio Brew Week and the annual Athens Halloween Block Party, as well as also outgoing president of the Athens County Visitors Bureau), stressed the significance of crafting narratives that reflect the diverse and resilient nature of the community. He expressed frustration with the harmful stereotypes associated with Southeast Ohio which paint its population as “all white, poor, and dumb.”

“It’s not who we are,” Thompson said. “We’re resilient, we’re welcoming, and we need to be able to tell our stories.”

Given his role as outgoing President of the Athens County Visitors Bureau, Thompson said that the region is known primarily for music festivals, craft beer, and outdoor activities. While all of those things are a part of the region’s identity, Thompson said they’re just a surface level fragment of it.

Over time the Thompson said he’s observed the community developing and supporting events and initiatives that celebrate the true character of the region, such as heritage tours that illuminate the area’s Black history. While this indicates a more unified sense of regional identity and self understanding, Thompson said the challenge lies in figuring out how to share this kind of understanding with those in state and national positions of power, such as fellow panelists Edwards, Collins and Jackson.

He called for decisions to be more inclusive and reflective of genuine local input, allowing those directly involved in the work to express their needs and ideas. This, he believes, would lead to more authentic and effective outcomes, rather than top-down decisions that may not fully address the community’s unique circumstances and aspirations.

Collins closed the meeting by affirming Thompson’s words and expressing optimism for the future of the arts in Ohio.

“We have no shortage of ideas and aspirations and we’ve already built the relationships and the partnerships,” Collins said. “And if Appalachian Ohio is listened to, if Athens County is listened to, and there’s a mix of voices and it’s a diversity of ideas and visions about where we need to go, I think it would be incredibly exciting to see where we end up.”