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  • Sara McDowell

Creative Energy is Fueling New Economic Development

This weekend I had the distinct pleasure to lead a round-table discussion on social media at the Arts Business Summit hosted by the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts. Attendees came from throughout West Virginia and a few from surrounding states came to learn how to grow their business.

Many of those in attendance knew one another and spoke highly of their fellow artisans. The established members spoke to students from Davis & Elkins College and young emerging artists. It was fascinating to watch the creative chemistry taking place in small group discussions and after learning sessions.

At the end of the first day of the summit, we left the Canaan Valley Lodge and headed down the road to Thomas, West Virginia. We gathered at the Gradient Project Space, the first of many galleries along the main street through town featuring the artwork of local residents. The pieces were beautiful and for someone who struggles to draw even a simple stick figure, some were a bit intimidating as well.

The diversity of work ranged from traditional and contemporary, to the unique and odd-yet-fascinating. All were extraordinary. Mediums included textiles, ceramics, photography, acrylics, watercolors and oils, printmaking, installation, and so much more. I could easily imagine all of the art at Gradient, Lamplight, Creature, Buxton and Landstreet Gallery and Studios, The White Room, the West Virginia Highlands Artisans Gallery, and ArtSpring in the Cottrill's Opera House featured in well-known galleries and museums around the world.

West Virginia is widely known for its energy resources- specifically coal, chemicals, and natural gas. Creative energy, however, is now fueling economies in small towns throughout the state. In a recent article by the New York Times, the galleries and outdoor activities in Thomas and Davis are attracting people from surrounding states eager for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

While articles like the one in the New York Times will certainly help spread the word of the amazing talent that resides in West Virginia, the artists must use the latest technology to share their work with the world. My role at the summit was to empower artisans to utilize social media platforms and digital marketing to promote their creations. Pinterest, for instance, drives 25% of all retail website referral traffic. More than two billion businesses advertise on Facebook. And Now This, a social media platform based news outlet that is less that five years old, has more than two billion video views per month.

So often we hear of photos or videos going viral on social media. Recently Ellen Fure Smith - an artist in Ohio with roots in West Virginia, posted a video of her latest wood working project. It now has more than 50,000 views on Instagram (which you can see at @littlebarefurniture). All it takes is one image, one video, one recommendation and thousands of people can learn West Virginia is far more than coal mines and poverty. We are rich in history and creativity.

It's opportunities like the Arts Business Summit that can help West Virginia find a new path and change the long-term narrative of our state, our economy, and our future. It's time we change our state of mind to showcase art, which gives as much as it takes, if not more. Isn't that the essence of creativity?

So while I'm not an artisan per se, my talent is social media, marketing, and communications. I love helping people take their work to a whole new level - it's like breathing life in to, or bringing a business, back to life. I feel like the Simon Cowell of music when that discovery is made.

I'm so glad I was able to be part of this experience. Through the support of organizations like Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, led by executive director Renee Margocee, West Virginia can become a hub for home grown artisans and those who visit and find inspiration in the rich history and natural beauty of the place we call home and know to be a work of art - a true masterpiece to be admired and treasured.