By Keith Thurston and Laura Connors Hull
How did Falls Church become a community of such active arts and culture? It began with dedicated people and non-profits providing the first sparks. The Village Society had been providing the free summer concerts at Cherry Hill Park. And the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation had its annual Blues Music Festival. A business group started First Fridays that is now operated by Falls Church Art and Frame that features local artists.
The Creative Cauldron began providing professional and educational theater to very positive reviews and awards and Falls Church Arts (FCA), founded in 2003, showcased exhibits by local visual artists. After using empty storefronts for these exhibits, FCA later shared the ArtSpace on Maple Avenue with Creative Cauldron, drawing audiences from around the Washington, D.C. region.
The City Council gets credit for wanting to activate and enliven the business district with the arts. It worked with the nonprofits to create the Arts and Humanities Council of Falls Church in 2008 — a City body — and simultaneously, the nonprofit CATCH Foundation was formed to work in parallel.
The official purpose of the Arts and Humanities Council of Falls Church (AHC) is to advise City Council on public policy, promoting activities, programs, events and strategies that encourage arts, history, and cultural education and to strengthen the vitality of these efforts. It is to serve as a catalyst in the greater community. It is composed of appointees of various local nonprofits and representatives from various City bodies work together to maximize the results possible.
The AHC has led the way on expanding public art for Falls Church. It worked with graduate students and City staff who compiled a collection of public art approaches of surrounding jurisdictions. They also developed an inventory of existing public art to update the Comprehensive Plan to incorporate the arts as an important part of the City.
The latest visible result of the AHC efforts is the public art of the new Founders Row development. The development approval contained a provision that the public art be developed with the advice and approval of the AHC.
The location is a mural on the Park Avenue side facing St. James Church. The AHC did not concur with the stock murals that the developer first offered, and instead produced a concept mural that related to Falls Church history. That concept circulated to other bodies as well as St. James Church and gained concurrence and applause from all. The mural project moved forward and is now complete. It is best seen from Park Ave.
AHC has also developed and curated several history projects, one being the history of Falls Church that will be on large tablets in an area being redeveloped. It also worked with the Tinner Hill Foundation to curate the history of Civil Rights in Falls Church that is inscribed in the sidewalk on South Washington Street at Tinner Hill.
CATCH is the acronym for “City of Arts, Theater, Culture and History.” CATCH, the nonprofit, helps to work across organizations to help share resources and join together groups for the common good. For instance, the street banner program was developed by CATCH so that each of the community events such as the VPIS summer music in the park, has visibility to locals and visitors with banners on the downtown lamp poles.
Each of the organizations pay for their banners and CATCH provided the production and the pole hardware. That program is now co-managed with the City Office of Communications and is very successful.
The CATCH Foundation, working with Falls Church Arts, developed a pilot project of activating art along sidewalks in the business district by employing utility boxes as the canvas. While there were a lot of technical details that had to be resolved related to the special requirements for utility boxes, the first instance is now located at the corner of Park Ave. and Little Falls Street.
Watch Night Falls Church is a major New Year’s Eve event that the CATCH organizes and operates with the help of many. Some other localities have First Night events for those who purchase tickets at $12 – $15 per person.
Watch Night is free to all attendees. It works here because of the financial sponsorship to CATCH by local businesses and nonprofits, as well as several venues that are managed that evening with nonprofit volunteers. The City staff are stalwarts with their support of Watch Night providing extra electrical power for lighting, public safety, Parks and Recreation support, fire safety, public works diverting traffic and keeping the event cleared of debris.
The success of those events is due to the pulling together of the resources of many different entities to make one enjoyable event for the community.
Keith Thurston is the President of the City of Arts, Theater, Culture and History (CATCH) Foundation. Laura Connors Hull, Director of Creative Cauldron, is the current chair of the Arts and Humanities Council of Falls Church (AHC).