Allentown Art Museum jumps into downtown renaissance

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Allentown Art Museum (Alphageekpa at English Wikipedia)

Allentown Art Museum (Alphageekpa at English Wikipedia)

The Allentown Art Museum wants to be an integral part of the exploding redevelopment in its city, and now it has a plan to make that happen.

The museum has unveiled a strategic plan to position itself as a key player in the city’s economic rebirth.

The museum, known for its extensive collection of European Renaissance paintings, has been a fixture in Allentown for 85 years. It’s now looking to expand in radical new ways.

“The donor base for the arts in Allentown between 2008 and 2010 — almost every major donor passed away,” said museum president David Mickenberg. “The state cut its funding. The city eliminated its funding.”

While the museum looked for new ways to generate revenue and survive, it also saw its neighborhood undergoing its own renaissance. In 2009, the state of Pennsylvania designated downtown Allentown a Neighborhood Improvement Zone — the NIZ — to encourage development and revitalization.

With deep tax incentives to trigger new construction, that’s just what happened. An 8,500-seat sports arena, the PPL Center, was built with the help of tax incentives. New apartment buildings and business centers are rising quickly, many developed by City Center, a  company that has announced it will invest $1 billion in Allentown real estate.

The Urban Land Institute has recognized the revitalization of Allentown by listing the city as a finalist for its 2017 Global Excellence Award.

Rather than idly stand by, museum officials want a piece of the action. They have come up with a multipronged strategic plan, two years in the making, that is radical in its ambitions.

The museum wants to build a Center for Creativity and Innovation — an intersection of art, education and community. Still in the conceptual phase, it’s unclear if the center will be on the museum’s existing footprint at Fifth and Court streets or in a different location.

It is also is creating a think tank — the Museum Institute — to focus on the role of art in the development of America’s urban centers. That institute will have its inaugural three-day symposium in the spring.

Mickenberg said he is partnering with the City Center development company to build affordable downtown housing for artists. The museum will manage that housing, as well as establishing dozens of artist-in-residence positions that will flood downtown and regional schools with arts and art education.

“We are still interested in providing that path of experience of looking at art, and seeing it in a contemplative environment,” said Mickenberg. “But our thinking about what’s necessary about engaging with audiences goes way beyond that.”

Earlier this year, the museum became a founding partner of the Cultural Coalition of Allentown, an advocacy group of businesses, community leaders, and arts organizations to leverage the arts toward civic goals.

The museum’s changing vision of itself is reflected in a new logo, and its first contemporary art commission; a sculpture by the Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare is expected to be delivered next year.

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