Economic decline and depopulation have been hallmarks in the Mississippi Delta region for the last couple of decades. More than nine years ago Newport Economic Development Commission Executive Director Jon Chadwell and others decided to change the gloomy perceptions in their own hometown.
The Delta Visual Arts Show was born. More than 200 artists, 20 authors, and 20 musicians are expected to greet a crowd that could top 5,000 visitors this Saturday, Chadwell told Talk Business & Politics.
“We wanted to prove we’re not just another beaten-down, Delta town,” Chadwell said. “Art and artists are thriving in this part of the state.”
The original intent was to build an innovation hub, a place where artists, entrepreneurs, business people, and others could go to develop ideas. Local officials hoped this hub would produce viable artists who might then go and start their own studious in Newport. Jackson County was envisioned as an art “Mecca,” Chadwell said.
A non-profit organization, Downtown Revitalization and Improvement Volunteer Effort, DRIVE, contacted the Clinton School of Public Service to determine the best way to find funds for the innovation hub. The organization suggested the city start a successful event, and it would improve DRIVE’s chances to receive state and federal grants to pay for the hub.
“It’s always an easier sell when you show commitment to a project and especially when it becomes successful,” Chadwell said, who also serves as DRIVE’s co-chairman.
The first year, the show had 17 artists and 180 visitors attended. Local leaders were pleased with the turnout. Little did they know the show would double the number of artists and visitors each year until the last couple of years, Chadwell said.
“We had no idea it would get this big … we had no clue,” he said.
Data has not been collected to determine the economic impact on Newport and the surrounding communities, but it has been tremendous, Chadwell said. Area restaurants are packed, and only local food trucks are allowed to sell food at the artist venues.
It costs about $17,000 to pay for the event, and at least 150 volunteers help setup. Part of the cost is covered through an auction held each year in the fall. Artists don’t have to pay a fee to attend the event, but many donate pieces of art. Those pieces are displayed in the building that houses the Rock-n-Roll Highway 67 Museum and the Commission. The pieces can be bought for full price. What doesn’t sell is auctioned, he said.
The event’s success has propelled the innovation hub project. The tools to outfit a makers space have been acquired, and it will be housed on the Arkansas State University Newport campus until a building for the hub is acquired. The space should be operational this summer. DRIVE officials have their eyes set on the former Arkansas Bank and Trust building in Newport. It will cost about $2 million to retrofit the building.
DRIVE has collected $1.2 million for innovation hub and three other revitalization projects in downtown Newport. The organization will seek grants to help cover the rest of the renovation costs.
Once the building is bought, officials plan to construct a makers space area, build classrooms, form a gallery, and they might build a recording studio. A section will be used as culinary arts space in conjunction with a program offered at ASU-Newport. One goal is to offer classes in various business and art related subjects, Chadwell said. Another is to train artists who will then go into the public and open their own studios. The project will require more money, and many of the innovation hub sections will be phased in as funds become available.
The author’s corner will be held at the show for the first time this year. If it’s successful, Chadwell said it will probably grow next year. Artist space is sometimes hard to come by, and at least 30 artists were still on a waiting list before Saturday. There have been discussions about adding a space to allow paint, frame, and other relevant vendors sell their wares, but nothing has been decided.
The Delta Visual Arts Show has become one of the signature events in Northeast Arkansas. Chadwell may have been initially surprised by the strong turnout numbers, but after spending time with the artists and the tourists who flock to Newport at the end of February, he said he now knows how meaningful this event has become.
“It was born to prove there is a deep love for the arts in this part of Arkansas,” Chadwell said.