Background and Workshop Challenge
The pieces are in place for a vibrant arts corridor in Keene, New Hampshire. The challenge for Arts Alive! and their partners—with a boost from CIRD—is to create a clear and inclusive vision that leads to tangible forward motion.
The community’s CIRD application reflected a clear-eyed take on the task at hand, starting with the assets in place. Keene (population 22,953) boasts thriving arts and culture venues and is home to two colleges. Fine dining and an array of international food options lure locals and tourists alike to Keene’s vibrant downtown. CIRD’s assistance would be timely, aligned with planned road infrastructure work in and around Gilbo Avenue—a focal point of the envisioned arts corridor—which could include suggestions from a citizen-led design process, thus reducing costs and avoiding a piecemeal process.
But the application also shared the challenges, noting an arts corridor effort a few years prior that didn’t succeed, with disparate stakeholders and lack of sustained funding among the obstacles. Moreover, Keene’s citizens, from business leaders to unhoused individuals and families, continually cite obstacles that are familiar to many tourism-dependent rural communities: a dearth of affordable housing; parking woes; inadequate public facilities including restrooms; conflicting needs of pedestrian and vehicular traffic; regular drug overdoses in public spaces; and disagreements over the purpose of public spaces. And 100 Nights, a homeless shelter in the heart of downtown Keene, is beyond its capacity.
While including all sectors of the community in its workshop-related outreach, Arts Alive! and the project steering committee went to extraordinary lengths to engage artists throughout the process, cognizant of the arts community’s fears that a further booming downtown could make Keene even less affordable and accessible to them and other workers so vital to the local economy.
As TBD Studio’s Omar Hakeem and Candace Maloney-Franklin (CIRD’s design leaders) stood before Keene’s mayor, city manager, and host of civic leaders to share the findings behind CIRD’s preliminary suggestions, they emphasized that CIRD’s listening started well before the whirlwind 3-day workshop. In November 2021, Hakeem and Maloney-Franklin trekked to Keene to see the streets, alleys, and public spaces that would later populate their renderings. They came to listen, getting a feel for local aspirations and concerns that would drive CIRD’s process.
In addition to the November site visit, CIRD hosted virtual engagement sessions with local business leaders and artists prior to the workshop, cognizant that their schedules coupled with an unpredictable pandemic might not allow for full engagement during the actual workshop. These advance engagements allowed artists to air their concerns that any proposed arts corridor be accessible to artists and that improvements to public spaces might thwart access to venues for local artisans and farmers. Further solidifying opportunities for local arts community engagement, day 1 of the workshop ended with a pop-up event on Gilbo Avenue featuring a makers’ market, arts activities, an art gallery, and live music. This gave Keene’s artisans, including visual artists and musicians, a chance to weigh-in directly with CIRD’s Resource Team. A key takeaway from the event: flexible public space matters, especially with Keene’s unpredictable weather and diversity of practicing artists.
The on-site workshop’s community engagement events included sessions in which locals could “vote” for their preferred use of public space based on photographic examples from other communities. Downtown business owners and workers joined CIRD’s team on walks across the proposed arts corridor, which gave CIRD’s team a close look at community concerns around pedestrian safety, traffic noise during performances, access to restroom facilities, signage issues, and related concerns. Day 2 of the workshop included the Housing Assistance Council’s (HAC) assessment of local needs beyond core workshop activities, including a visit to the 100 Nights Shelter, where the executive director shared examples of the shelter’s clients contributing their talents to the local arts scene along with her efforts to raise funds for a new facility. HAC’s team will continue to work with the National Endowment for Arts and other partners to assist Keene on broader economic and community development efforts.
TBD Studio led CIRD’s design engagement at the workshop. Other resource team members included:
Kaki Martin and Hana Ketterer with the Klopfer Martin Design Group, who brought award-winning landscape architecture expertise and drawing skills to the workshop and input for the CIRD team’s Keene Design Book.
Matt Khinda, an urban planning student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, provided planning insights and drawing expertise throughout the workshop process, including leading a virtual break-out group on the final day.
Dan Scully, a Keene-based architect and long-time arts advocate, who brought invaluable local knowledge throughout the process, including insights on local infrastructure and governance.
HAC’s Natasha Moodie and Stephen Sugg provided workshop support while compiling a broader set of suggestions to guide Keene toward additional public and private sector support for the arts corridor and aligned efforts.
CIRD’s community presentation at the workshop’s conclusion included a synthesis of top challenges and opportunities as well as before-and-after renderings of key intersections and areas important in the proposed corridor—all built on local input and intended to generate enthusiasm for the project’s potential. These concept renderings, along with a broader site plan, will inform more detailed recommendations in CIRD’s Keene Design Book.
Jessica Gelter, Arts Alive! Executive Director, contacted CIRD’s team a few weeks post-workshop with examples of the community’s sustained enthusiasm and eagerness for acting on the workshop’s preliminary recommendations. Arts Alive! and the steering committee are in touch with city officials who oversee historical review processes and budgets for signage, street painting and even public restrooms—all examples of practical steps and buy-in necessary for turning architectural renderings into reality. She also shared new ideas hatched from the workshop community engagement process, including a ticket sale kiosk that would solidify Keene’s place as a regional hub for the arts.