Plein air apparent: South Jersey town hosts outdoor painting competition

Small and midsized towns in South Jersey are turning to the arts as an economic engine, and taking cues from gallery events such as First Friday in Philadelphia’s Old City and Fishtown neighborhoods.

One rule of thumb for a monthly art day: it must be alliterative. Collingswood has a Second Saturday, Hammonton has a Third Thursday, and Pitman has a Fourth Friday.

For four consecutive months, Hammonton is hosting a plein air competition every third Thursday (where artists paint landscapes outside, in the plain air). Competitors have four hours to paint or draw something, which will be judged. There’s a hundred bucks on the line.

On one of the hottest days on record in Hammonton, pastel artist Linda Hibbs positioned herself on the shady side of Bellevue Avenue. She normally prefers to paint natural landscapes en plein air, but the rules of the competition forced her to find inspiration inside the few urban blocks that make up the Hammonton Arts District.

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“The red Vespa,” said Hibbs, pointing to the motor scooter in front of a wine bar across the street, framed by red umbrellas. “I couldn’t resist that color.”

“Urban” blocks might be a stretch. With fewer than 15,000 people, Hammonton is far from metropolitan. Right off the Atlantic City Expressway, it’s on the edge of the Pinelands.

Growing blueberries and culture

Hammonton is better known for its blueberries than its arts district. Last year, however, it established one based on the presence of the restored, historic Eagle Theater, a satellite gallery of Oceanville’s Noyes Museum, and the Hammonton Arts Center.

In nearby Millville, the Glasstown Arts District has demonstrated that galleries and boutiques can revive dying–some say dead–parts of towns. Buoyed by state funding, it promotes an arts walk every third Friday. But during the recent recession, Glasstown has had a difficult time sustaining itself.

In contrast, the Hammonton Arts District is sustained mostly by the local businesses.

“We focus on being a small, working downtown,” said Jim Donia, president of the Eagle Theater who helped establish the arts district. “We’re not trying to be anything we’re not. That’s the difference between us and a lot of districts–we are a working, operating downtown that can offer services and restaurants and shopping, along with arts.”

The two main assets of an arts district are the art experience, and the artwork itself. Places such as Hammonton can’t compete with the quantity or quality of artwork in major markets. But they can sell a First Friday, or a Third Thursday, as a destination event.

The former publisher of ArtBeat magazine, Bill Horin, now runs an online South Jersey artist directory called Art-C. He says it takes more than good intentions to make an arts district.

“They need to attract a higher level of artist eventually, who can make a living selling art in a town like Hammonton or Millville,” said Horin. “Can an artist move to Hammonton or Millville and make a living? They are doing that to some degree. But it needs to get kicked up a notch.”

Charting the future

The Hammonton Arts Center recently moved into a three-story building on the town’s commercial corridor. It has big ideas for the future: a youth arts academy, a countywide open studios tour, and the construction of artists’ residences.

One of the original founders of the arts center has reservations about the growth of the center. She said it was more fun 15 years ago, when artists showed work at house parties, and it didn’t involve so much money.

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