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Art Incubators: How Libraries Offer More Than Books

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What is a library? A good place to go if you like stern, bun-headed women shushing you mercilessly? A place to store soon-to-be-obsolete books? A cultural institution past its prime in a digital age?

If you really spend time in a library-- from the the New York Public Library's main branch to Monona Public Library in Monona, WI-- you might say that a library is a community center, a place to access the Internet on free public computers or to grab a cup of coffee, even a place to attend an art show, a poetry reading, or a public lecture.

On the Library as Incubator Project website, we want to showcase how libraries do more for their communities than provide free access to books; we're interested in how they foster lifelong learning and creativity, and how they can (and do!) incubate the arts. Libraries provide tangible services to their communities every year; in Wisconsin, for example, they return $4.06 worth of materials and services for every tax dollar that's invested, raising property values and literacy at the same time.

Libraries can be an office, a gallery, a performance space, even a studio. Take, for example, the ArtWalk gallery space in the Hartford Public Library in Hartford, CT which will be featured on the site soon. It's a gorgeous, spacious exhibition area attached to the library. The library integrates programming, book displays, and special events to complement ArtWalk exhibitions. This provides not only professional development for the featured artists, but also arts education and literacy development for all ages. Or consider the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane, which hosted British artist Stephen Wiltshire while he drew a panorama of the city earlier this month. Hundreds of library-goers were on hand to observe him, ask questions, and simply be in the presence of artistic work in the making.

Not every library can build an exhibition area, and not every library has the space to act as a drawing studio, but every library can provide resources for local artists and writers, and work to connect their communities to the arts. Libraries can offer programs like scary story Halloween writing contests for children and young adults. They can connect with local writers or artists (many of whom who teach at schools and colleges) to host poetry or drawing workshops. They can link to image-rich resources on their websites and promote art and design books to their patrons with book displays and reading lists. No matter the scale, libraries have the capacity to connect their communities to the arts in meaningful ways.

It was no accident that The Library as Incubator Project was born during the massive Wisconsin budget protests of 2011. The state budget was undergoing a significant restructuring, which included substantial cuts to libraries and prominent publicly funded arts organizations. At that point, we started to realize that our grand idea-- the idea of promoting the library-as-incubator-- might be more than just a pet project for a trio of library school students. We realized that libraries functioning as arts incubators could provide the spaces and materials necessary to sustain the artistic and creative work of writers, illustrators, painters, photographers, poets, playwrights, and performing artists of all kinds when local and state governments took an axe to the arts budget.

With vital programs like poetry fellowships and arts residencies on the chopping block, a library can fill those gaps for artists in the community by proving space to work, collections of inspiring and practical materials, and collaborative support. We saw real potential for libraries to come to the fore as arts incubators in the same way that they have become job-search hubs by providing Internet access, resume workshops, and job search materials for many, many job seekers during this recession.

Librarians and artists of all stripes know that these kinds of partnerships are forming naturally all over the place. At The Library as Incubator Project, we simply hope to offer a "hub" for conversation and communication, and in so doing, promote new and deeper partnerships that will change the answer to our initial question:

What is a library? It's place to connect and create.

Read more at www.libraryasincubatorproject.org, connect with us on Facebook (Library as Incubator Project), or follow us on Twitter: IArtLibraries.