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Culture in the Balance: small groups losing ground

photo by Joyce Kryszak
Molly Bethel, founder of Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes

By Joyce Kryszak


Buffalo,NY –

The cultural organizations that are getting Erie County funding this year are often referred to as the Big Ten. The county executive's budget excluded about three dozen mid and small sized groups.

Some of them, such as the African American groups, are serving soem of the most under-privileged communities.

Kids have been stopping by Molly Bethel's place to get advice on painting since 1959. Bethel said that is how the Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes were born.

"This first started in my kitchen on Maple Street," said Bethel. "Children in the neighborhood...came to my house and demanded what they called "painting parties."

Those painting parties grew as more and more kids found Bethel's table a refuge from the streets in this tough Fruit Belt neighborhood. S, Bethel found a new home for them in an old three-story convent on Locust Street.

Bethel said they bought the building with mostly 25 cent donations from the neighborhood kids.

Locust Street grew from there. Now, there are about 300 children and adults who come here now to learn painting, clay and photography from experts in those fields.

But the classes are still free, partly because of public funding. Bethel, who is now 77, feels strongly about the need for that to continue.

"I happened by chance into a art class that had started as a WPA art project. If that class hadn't been there, I never would have been an artist and this whole place never would have happened," said Bethel.

Bethel said children here learn how to paint but they learn much more than that too. She says painting helps them learn how to share, how to analyze and solve problems, to be tolerant and how to communicate in an otherwise noisy, senseless world.

"Because art is communication. It is not therapy. It is not an activity. It is very serious form of communication. It's another language," said Bethel.

Those lessons have served Paul E. McDougald well. The 46 year old is a life skills coach at Gateway Longview. McDougald, said he has Locust Street to thank for making him who he is.

He was a student and later an assistance here. He still lives in the neighborhood, and McDougald said he can't imagine the neighborhood with out Locust Street.

"I just kind of watched this whole thing kind of grow as I grew up. And this time that we're in, especially with the young people, we need all the positive avenues you can get," said McDougald. "Closing this place? Oh, no. That would devastate a whole culture in this neighborhood."

But with county funding gone - and state funding drying up too, Bethel said it has been hard to even keep the heat on and pay what little staff they have.

A little way over on Main Street in the Tri-Main building, another small arts group also is struggling to stay open.

Buffalo Inner City Ballet Executive and Artistic Director Marvin Askew has been teaching inner-city kids about the beauty and discipline of ballet for a couple decades. But Askew said they teach the kids much more than that.

"Every child wants to feel good about themselves, whether they're dancing, or doing gymnastics, or whatever," said Askew. "So, we concentrate primarily on focusing on developing their self-esteem," said Askew.

He said sometimes he feels like a father to the kids. He certainly spends enough time helping the kids develop those positive self images.

"I come here sometimes from 9:00 A.M. in the morning and I don't get home until 1:00A.M. And that's sometimes seven days a week," said Askew.

You see, Askew is the company's only full time employee. As public funding has dwindled, Askew said hehas had to cut back his staff over the years. There are only two part time instructors - plus himself.

Askew said at one time, they were less dependent on county money. He said they sold a lot of tickets with their tour of the Nutcracker. But Askew said a previous county administration put a stop to that.

"We we're earning almost half of our funding," said Askew. "Until the county said, "Well, you're getting county funding, so, we what you to stay right here."

Now, he said they don't have the staff to remount a touring show. And, with most kids able to pay only little or nothing for classes, he said there are not many other options.

The Fund for the Arts, a group of foundations is trying to make up some of the lost funding this year. Robert Gioia from the Oishie Foundation said the African American groups should get their share.

"You know, this is a diverse community. This is a community of a diverse population and our arts organizations are reflective of that," said Gioia. "We should take that into consideration."

Some foundations and community leaders are hoping to solve the funding problems long term. The Partnership for the Public Good is hosting a forum next Tuesday to talk about the possibility of establishing a dedicated source of county funding.

Next week, WBFO will take a look at the impact funding cuts are having on in-school educational arts programs.