How The Arts Can Strike the Spark to Reignite a Community

 In Arts, Engage Toms River

With all the attention in recent years on STEAM education and the importance of the Arts in our schools, it’s time to seriously consider how art can impact other aspects of our community. Many cities in the US have created art districts which have become springboard of their revitalization.

These cultural districts often become the catalyst of social and economic development by attracting artists and other creative influences to the area. An art district serves as a hub for the arts and cultural activities in the community, attracting more people to the area. In turn, this creates an increase in the demand for commerce.

There are many art district success stories coming from larger towns and big cities. There is University Circle in Cleveland, Atlanta’s historic Castleberry Hill, Baltimore’s Station North and so many more. But what about small town USA? Can creating an art district help them as well?

art community

Artist Travis Applegate at Art in the Park. August 2016 – Photographs by Sandra Levine

Right here in New Jersey there are quite a few towns that have reclaimed their downtown and Main Street through the collaboration of art and commerce. Collingswood, Millville, Cape May, Lambertville, Haddonfield and Hoboken to name a few. Through their revitalization, these towns have become a destination to live, work and play.

Depending on where you’re traveling from these towns are great choices for a day trip, a weekend getaway or full fledged vacation. They have art galleries, theaters and performing arts centers, and an array of unique shops and restaurants. Combined they create an experience that you can only experience there, unlike the mall, where once inside it is difficult to determine which one you are in as they all boost pretty much the same chain stores and restaurants.

The Influence and Impact Art Can Have on Revitalization

It has been a long standing tradition among artists to seek out interesting places to make art that also offer inexpensive places to live. They often choose small, out of the way, towns and cities. Naturally, as artists, they want their surroundings to be beautiful. They can see the possibilities in a town that may have fallen into disrepair, physically and economically, and utilize their talent to improve the area’s appearance.

This facelift begins to attract other artistic people. Unique little shops and restaurants begin to pop up. Soon it is an up and coming, trendy area. Commerce increases, jobs are created and the community grows.


Artists, because of their creative nature, can be thought of as scattered or disorganized individuals. While this can sometimes be true, they bring a different perspective to a project or organization.

An artist will have a creative rather than an analytical point of view. This can infuse a project with interest and inspiration and prevent it from resulting in a sterile and predictable outcome. They also volunteer and actively participate in their communities, offering their time, artistic abilities and experience.


Artists thrive on making beautiful spaces and have an almost intrinsic understanding of design. Their creative insight can be pivotal in community revitalization. Artist’s involvement in city planning will help to create innovative ideas and support for community projects such as murals, graffiti art, statues and sculpture gardens.

arts community

One of Brian Hanlon’s sculptures in front of the Ocean County Courthouse. – Photographs by Sandra Levine


For revitalization to take place, there has to be a reason for people to visit or move to a particular city or town. The Arts and cultural events such art shows, galleries, theaters, artisan festivals and unique cuisine can put forth a positive image of a community, making it a desirable destination. Downtown and Main Street revitalization efforts that incorporate the Arts will strengthen the community and drive its economic development.

Economic Growth

Though not always thought of that way, the arts are an industry of their own. When working hand in hand with other successful businesses, they can help draw a diverse group of consumers to the community. A strong arts and cultural presence is not only attractive to visitors, it makes a community a sought out place to live.

Tourism creates business and jobs as well as the need for those jobs to be filled. The people who fill those jobs often become residents. This creates the need to improve existing housing or build more which in turn creates more jobs. It becomes a domino effect of growth in many ways stimulated by the arts.

How the Arts Can Help Revitalize Our Community

It begins with making the the community more appealing visually. The Engage Toms River Mural Project sponsored by the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation is a perfect example of a partnership of the arts and the community.

The mural on the side of Nancy’s Cafe is in a high visibility location at the entrance to Toms River. One of it purposes was to highlight all the different assets of Toms River in an attractive and artistic way. The other was to build community and this project lent itself perfectly to that. Because it was such a large project, it required everyone in the community to come together to complete it.This collaboration of the arts and the community, brought together artists, residents, and businesses to create a beautiful piece of art that would attract visitors and they could take pride in.

This summer of 2016, Toms River was host to an exhibit of 24 sculptures created by renowned artist Brian Hanlon, a Toms River resident who owns Hanlon Sculpture Studio. This helped to make Toms River a destination this past summer for people who wanted to take in the exhibit. As the sculptures were scattered around town, visitors got a good look at the downtown community, visited the shops and patronized the restaurants. Yet another great example of a successful collaboration of art and commerce.

Toms River Township Mayor Tom Kelaher and artist Yvonne Yaar. September 2016 – Photographs by Sandra Levine

While all of these events have been a great success, they are just the tip of the the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of art in the community. Why stop there? By building and promoting the community as an arts district, Toms River could easily become a popular destination for visitors and new residents.

To achieve this, the whole community needs to be actively involved. The Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation has been a major driving force behind what has already been accomplished but it truly does take a village. Artists, residents, businesses and city officials alike, all need to become involved. With the whole community working together as a whole, Toms River could be recognized along with other successful, small town art districts like Asheville, NC, Beaufort, SC or New Hope, Pa.

By Adam Binder, Creative Director and Founder of Creative Click Media

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