What makes a community project successful?

This past spring, my friends Paul and Caroline came to me with an idea. They had seen the Philadelphia mural arts project and wanted to talk about ways we could bring public art to Bethlehem. It seemed like such a fun idea that I immediately said I’d love to be involved. The ART (Art on the Rail Trail) committee formed this past spring and in short order we selected the first site, started a public awareness campaign and kicked off our fundraising. We set an aggressive goal to have the first mural installed along the Albany County Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail this fall and last weekend we celebrated with an unveiling ceremony and reception. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s at 90 Adams St in Delmar and it’s pretty terrific. We are hoping this is the first of many art installations up and down the trail so keep your eye out for more!

Being a part of the ART project got me thinking about how ideas become reality. Not to overstate it, but I think in many ways this project’s execution is a road map for successful grassroots community efforts.

Here is a list of what I think we did right:

Getting good help As great as the three of us are, we never could have done it without enlisting the help of other knowledgeable and committed community members. None of us are artists, but luckily we happen to know a few and their insider information was invaluable (otherwise the first mural would likely have been painted by an unruly bunch of middle schoolers - not that that wouldn’t be cool but what we ended up with is so much better). Also having the support of established community organizations was critical. In this case, it was the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, the Town of Bethlehem and the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce that each played an integral role in moving this project forward.

Having a clear focus This project was easy to keep on track because our goal (one mural by Fall 2017) was clear and concise. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of steps in the process but we always knew where we were going and that made it a lot easier.

Setting a deadline and telling everyone about it Each time we would hit a minor roadblock and we’d get nervous about the timing, I would remind the committee that we had to have it done by November, after all that is what we had been telling everyone all summer long. While it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we had had to wait, not really giving ourselves that option kept the momentum going.

Engaging the community Now this is where a bit of luck factors into the equation. We happen to be located in Bethlehem, a community known for its involved and active citizens and local businesses. Tables at the local farmers markets netted small donations, the handful of business sponsor requests were overwhelmingly met with a yes and our one fundraising event was a great success. A surprise grant award from the AARP’s 2017 Livable Communities Challenge enabled the committee to exceed its fundraising goal.

Nagging This is where I shine. If there’s one thing I am good at, it’s sending out email reminders. My attitude is you can never remind too much. Well, you probably can but hopefully I didn’t overdo it. The point is, a successful project needs someone in charge who is keeping track of the tasks and the deadlines and making sure everyone is doing what they said they would.

Make it rewarding and fun Probably all of us can recall a time we volunteered for something that was neither rewarding nor fun (I still have flashbacks to a tense experience volunteering at my daughter’s fifth grade musical). I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy so if you are going to ask someone to donate their time and energy to a project, it should provide the volunteer a sense of satisfaction. While I am sure not every meeting was a laugh riot, I think I can speak for the other committee members when I say that we all felt a true sense of pleasure at seeing the first mural completed and receiving the positive feedback from community members.

Who knows what will become of the ART committee and how many pieces of art we will ultimately install along the rail trail? Like any new project, we will likely struggle with sustaining volunteer interest, raising funds for each installation and staying focused as we grow but I do hope that we are able to weather those challenges. If I have my way there will be murals on buildings and sculptures dotting the landscape up and down the length of the trail.