What’s New at Artsquest?

What’s New at Artsquest?

By Frederick Jerant
Photos by Paul S. Bartholomew, Julie Benjamin and Joe Ledva

QUICK! What’s the first word to come to mind when you hear “ArtsQuest?”

For most people, it’s probably “Musikfest®.” And that’s not surprising. At first a rather small and low-key festival (trust me, I attended some of them), it’s since grown exponentially. Now known as the nation’s largest non-gated music festival, over 1,000,000 people get “platzed” during the 10-day event.

But it’s not the only thing on the organization’s plate.

Jeff Parks founded ArtsQuest in 1984, recalls Kassie Hilgert, senior vice president of marketing and advancement.  Parks envisioned capitalizing on the city’s community assets – particularly music, central to the culture of the founding Moravians – as a way to increase year-‘round tourism, support local businesses and revitalize areas that needed improvement.

Since then, ArtsQuest has converted a dilapidated banana warehouse and distribution center into the Banana Factory, a visual arts & education campus; established Christkindlmarkt (featuring handmade crafts, live music, food and other attractions); and created Oktoberfest, a multi-day recreation of the traditional German festival.

But one of its latest ventures is the transformation of a huge brownfield into SteelStacks, one of the Valley’s premiere arts and culture centers. It’s home to:

• The ¡Sabor! Latin festival, a four-day celebration of Latino culture,

• RiverJazz ™ (presented by Concannon Miller), featuring everything from swing to free-jazz,

• Olympus InVision photo festival (with exhibitions, presentations and workshops),

• Greater Lehigh Valley Filmmaker Festival, showcasing local and regional talents, and similar events.

Here’s a look at some of SteelStacks’ main venues.

Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas

This showcase for independent, foreign and documentary films, located on the first floor of SteelStacks, features two auditoriums (100 seats and 200 seats) with digital and 35-mm film projection, 7.1 surround-sound and reserved seating.

A film discussion group meets on Tuesdays, and the monthly “Soundtrack Comes Alive” program features a live band playing in front of a film.

Instead of overpriced popcorn and sodas, patrons can purchase beer and other adult beverages, and a variety of real food, at the Mike & Ike Bistro. Those amenities are available in only four other film locations in Pennsylvania.

“The Alehouse Cinemas have been very successful,” Hilgert says. “Some patrons have told us it’s the only place they’ll go to see movies.”

But the venue is more than just “moving pictures.” The Alehouse Cinemas have hosted the KNBT jazz stage during Musikfest. Thursday nights feature improv or stand-up comedy performances (Hilgert reports that nearly 7,000 people attended the laugh-fests last year). And the 200-seat auditorium doubles as a children’s interactive theater. “It’s like a ‘black box’ theater,” she says. “There’s a stage in front of the screen, and some lighting equipment.”

The venue is also home to PEEPSFEST™ in December, dedicated to the squishy marshmallow treats and capped by the ceremonial lowering of a 6-foot Peep at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks

The Levitt Pavilion hosts dozens of concerts from Memorial Day through mid-September; Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield serves as presenting sponsor, and over a dozen other local organizations – ranging from Mack Trucks to Double Decker Records – provide additional funding.

“The pavilion was tremendously popular, right out of the gate,” Hilgert says, and it’s no wonder. The 2013 line-up included Poco, Pure Prairie League, Los Straitjackets and the Drifters, as well as local favorites the Allentown Band and Craig Thatcher… all outdoors, and all free!

And while the Alehouse Cinemas sometimes host musical performances, the Levitt Pavilion similarly screens movies.

“Next to the stage is a huge digital screen,” Hilgert says, “and we show free family-friendly movies on Wednesday nights from June to August. Families can bring blankets and chairs to sit on the Levitt lawn, so it’s kind of like a drive-in.”

She adds that it’s a great experience for families. “Watching a movie outdoors on a big screen, with the illuminated blast furnaces as a backdrop – it’s unlike anything else in the Valley. In fact, I can’t think of anything else in the northeast that’s quite as dramatic.”

Musikfest Café presented by Yuengling

Occupying the third and fourth floors of the ArtsQuest Center, it’s a flexible space – 450 people can enjoy a full dinner and cabaret show on both floors; 700 patrons will fit when theater-style seating is used; and the top floor can go “standing room only” for 1,000 people.

“We looked at existing venues, and decided not to try competing with them,” Hilgert says. “Instead, we wanted to create an experience unlike anything else.”  No seat is more than 60 feet from the stage, creating a remarkably intimate experience, for performers and audiences alike.

“It’s been a tremendous success,” she says. “We offer excellent shows, lower prices and free parking.” Hilgert proudly adds that Pollstar magazine (an industry trade journal) ranks the Musikfest Café in its top 100 venues worldwide. “We’re actually listed above Orlando’s Hard Rock Café,” she says.

Other community outreach

ArtsQuest’s dedication to enhancing the region’s quality of life goes well beyond presenting music, dance and photography.

Each year, from spring through fall, 30 local growers and vendors come to the SteelStacks farmers’ market to hawk their wares. Healthcare agencies, hospitals and schools offer health-related information to the open-air market’s patrons. It’s particularly important because the immediate area is considered a “food desert,” a district that has little or no access to fresh, healthful and affordable foods.

At-risk students (whether financially or academically challenged) can benefit from “B-Smart,” a collaboration between the Bethlehem Area School District’s ASPIRE program and the Banana Factory, aimed at bringing arts education to at-risk middle-school students.

“When they arrive at the Banana Factory after school, they pair up with artists who see them as just kids,” Hilgert says. “Any ‘labels’ they may have at school disappear.”

She adds that the program exposes students to pottery, jewelry, sculpture, digital photography, video game design and hot glass, develops their creative sides while building relationships and teaches respect for authority.

“They don’t realize they’re learning and changing,” Hilgert says, “but they are, in measurable ways.” An ArtsQuest survey has shown that 77% of these students have a higher GPA when enrolled and nearly 50% attain honor roll; 34% had reduced absenteeism; and 93% said they established job skills and a sense of responsibility.

And in “Faces of the South Side,” some Broughal middle school students are coached by professional photographers, and then given a camera and instructions to go out and shoot whatever interests them.  The results reflect the students’ unique perspectives and interests, and “It’s an eye-opening experience for the students and the staff,” Hilgert says.

Music, art, food, education, dance, community outreach – there’s always something exciting going on at ArtsQuest.

For more information about these and other programs, visit artsquest.org, email info@artsquest.org, or call 610.332.1300.

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