One year ago, Sarah Skow talked to Khroma about the arts community. After successfully implementing the monthly Art Loop, connecting with Tarta and community giants ProMedica and the Toledo Mud Hens franchise, the 2016 interview is worth a second read.
Original Title: [The Rise of the Mid-Sized City Part 2: An Interview with Sarah Skow, President-Elect of the Toledo Arts Commission]
By Dorian Slaybod
Public art offers a chance to engage with a city, to come face-to-face with the vision of an artist rooted to the ground below. The Arts Commission, a 57-year-old local nonprofit, has over 40 pieces of public art in its collection. Scattered within neighborhoods throughout the city stand statues of bronze and steel and wood and aluminum, and murals painted bright on concrete. In Harvard Circle, there are three steel clouds constructed by a Dutch artist that drip water like rain. Downtown, on Madison Avenue, 88 white-and-black piano keys spiral upward in a 27-foot-tall tower. And on Broadway Street, under the I-75 overpass, a mural of bright pastels and tan faces mark the entrance to the Old South End. The Arts Commission facilitates works of art throughout the city that have become as entrenched in the landscape as the buildings that surround them. The Commission also holds monthly gallery tours, called “Art Loops,” where artists can display their work for others to see. The Commission mentors 40 teenagers every year, and pays them to make art, through their “Young Artists at Work” program. Their staff and programming ensure that art in Toledo remains supported and celebrated.
The Arts Commission’s next board president, Sarah Skow, will take leadership this June. Skow is an attorney, and an indefatigable volunteer. She is the president of the Children’s Theater Workshop, president of the Women’s Bar Association, and has served on a long list of other boards and committees. I sat down with Sarah to talk about the importance of art, and what it means for Toledo.
How did you become involved with the Arts Commission?
I bartended at one of the first Mixes, 10 years or so ago, and discovered this whole energy and momentum that I hadn’t been exposed to before.
Were you involved in [the] arts before?
Yes, I took classes at the Art Museum. I was involved in Children’s Theater Workshop for a number of years. I took all the art courses I could in junior high and high school. I played in the orchestra in grade school and junior high. So I had a very arts and culturally heavy experience as a kid.
Why is public art important?
It kind of builds this outward reflection that’s tangible for others to see [a] community’s soul, or heartbeat, or idea for the future, even. It’s a reflection of the past, present, and future. Art has a real time travel quality for me, where you’re not standing in any one period of time when you’re exposed to it... That’s a real responsibility, and a serious responsibility to make sure that we are getting works up that are reflective of the community, but can also challenge the community, too.
What is your role going to be as President?
The Arts Commission is interesting in the fact that our real work goes beyond just what the public art piece is. It’s beyond what we do with the thousands of youth that we’ve employed through the Young Artists at Work program, to expose them to the fact that there is a creative economy. This is a huge industry. And in northwest Ohio, in particular, it is pretty astounding what the creative economy has become, as it has in other arts communities throughout the Rust Belt. Because it’s an industry, and it is industrial, people are working with their hands. So I think it ties in very well with Toledo’s historic auto industry [and] farming economies. Art’s another industry within that spectrum.
Is that your goal: to help [artists] be self-sustaining?
We all do better if the artists do better. And it isn’t for polish, or to make something look pretty. We react more. It invests us more in our community. It shows what we value, and that art doesn’t have to be behind glass or ropes—or gated—it can be very much an everyday experience.
What does the Arts Commission do for the person who doesn’t care about art at all?
It helps that person live in a more vibrant community, anyway. Regardless, it makes their experience richer with economic redevelopment. They might not realize that... the T-shirt they’re wearing, the conversation that they’re having, that the music that’s playing are made possible, even if not directly by the Arts Commission, then indirectly by the Arts Commission.
What is your personal role in Toledo?
Giving back to the community that’s given me so much is really important to me... I don’t know that I have this gift or talent to create. I’ll create for myself, but not to where I’ll be showing in galleries or publishing, you know, volumes of poetry or something like that. I enjoy the experience, but I find it really rewarding for myself to do what I can so that those that have more developed gifts—musical talent, poetic license—can run with that.
And you feel like you’re helping?
I hope I am. I feel it internally, like I’m doing something... What I have to contribute is time, and ideas, and energy.
Is Toledo going to be a desirable place to live in the future?
Yes, and I think it is now. And I think it always has been desirable too, historically. But we have a perception issue. I think a part of it is a real human tendency, particularly in a Rust Belt or Midwestern city, to have the mentality that you look at what the flaws are and not what is working well for it. It is harder for people to take a compliment than it is to pick apart some type of flaw. It is easier to make fun than it is to embrace positivity...
I do think we have a lot of work to do, still, as a community.
Anything specifically [that we have to do]?
Finding ways for communities and neighborhoods to strengthen themselves. The poverty level is too high here. We need to find out ways that quality of life can improve for those who are on the lower end of the spectrum. We talked about how great of a life you can have here—I don’t want the starving artist or the, you know, person who is working three part-time jobs to feel like they can’t make it here. And I think the arts and culture are part of that process of strengthening the community. And I think that they’re vital to that process... Sometimes people don’t see arts as being a vital part of the human experience, but they really are.