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Tamaqua praised for arts, culture projects

The Tamaqua community was featured in a new report last month called “WE-Making: How Arts & Culture Unite People to Work Toward Community Well-Being.”

The report was developed with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation and other funders. Tamaqua was used as an example of how it used the arts to help change the mindset and attitude of its community.

A news release explained that the report distills that information into key terms and concepts that together demonstrate that social cohesion nurtures coordinated community organizing and can lead to increased community well-being.

“Early in our inquiry of equitable practices in creative place-making, we heard from residents, artists and practitioners about the importance of social cohesion as an essential precondition to long-term community change,” said Regina Smith, managing director of Kresge’s Art & Culture Program.

“During these unprecedented times, we strongly believe that artists and creative practices can help us reckon with the past and pave the way to a more racially just and equitable recovery. The WE-Making report expands our understanding of why social cohesion matters and offers compelling examples of how it has contributed to confronting systemic inequities, supporting health and well-being, and bridging across differences.”

The report featured four case studies, including Tamaqua’s “Dear Tamaqua … In a New Light” project, which was “part festival, part public performance, part theater, part block party” that turned community input into artistic expression in a small town that faced an uncertain future.

During the two-year project, organizers gathered more than 500 letters from current and former residents who wrote their memories of the past and hopes for the future. They used that information to create a walking tour loaded with interactive scenes, sounds, tastes and memories.

In 2011, Penn State surveyed Tamaqua residents about life in the community. Micah Gursky, executive director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership, explained that Tamaqua was one of many Pennsylvania communities that were researched by PSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The 2011 survey showed that residents were overall fairly negative and frustrated.

“When we got the results back, we thought, oh my gosh, we have to do something,” Gursky said.

The Tamaqua Community Arts Center launched its Dear Tamaqua project in 2013-2014. Penn State then surveyed many residents again in 2016 and the results were much more positive and favorable after the project.

“We were developing the arts center to try to help build that social cohesiveness and engage people and connect them throughout the community,” Gursky said.

“The arts center has been a big part of that. That’s really why we’re selected as a case study. The Kresge and The National Endowment for the Arts and trying to encourage other communities to use the arts as a way to do this.”

Gursky said because of the Penn State study, Tamaqua is one of the few communities that have documented community attitude changes from the arts.

“If you have good social cohesion and people trust each other and there is a general alignment of goals, and people have a sense of purpose - there are positive impacts and outcomes,” Gursky said.

“People are physically and mentally healthier and your community is better off. That was the whole purpose on them coming up with his report on the role of arts and fostering them. We’re happy to be selected by them to help our story.”

For more information on the report, visit communitydevelopment.art/issues/social-cohesion.

ABOVE: Tamaqua is more than a pretty picture. The town has been honored in a special report, “WE-Making: How Arts & Culture Unite People to Work Toward Community Well-Being.” DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
LEFT: This billboard was part of the Dear Tamaqua … In a New Light project and displays the tenacity behind the very concept of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership. More than 1,500 people participated in the interactive displays, which stretched for more than 1 mile. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO