ArtsQuest’s story is intertwined with Bethlehem, Pa., our hometown. As you read on, please note that ArtsQuest is a bit different from most arts organizations in that we do not have a specific art form or agenda to advance. Our focus is on affording our community access to arts that otherwise might not be available to the community, while supporting regional artists and cultural traditions.
How We Began
For the entire 20th Century the story of Bethlehem was also the story of its eponymous industry Bethlehem Steel, known internationally as simply “Bethlehem” and known locally as “The Steel.” For the first seven decades of the century, The Steel was the core of the city’s economy, providing employment and the unprecedented opportunities for the rise of the middle class. The Steel became the second largest steel company in the United States, the largest ship builder in the world, and was a Fortune Top 10 company for many years. In 1977 with increased competition from foreign steel and high labor costs, the Bethlehem plant experienced the first round of layoffs in the history of The Steel. It was followed closely by the second round in 1983.
The decline in employment was accompanied by the national emergence of suburban malls that were displacing “downtown” businesses. Bethlehem’s traditional north side Moravian District and the SouthSide both had thriving business districts in the 1950s. By the late ’70s the SouthSide was all but devastated and the smaller business district in the Moravian area was struggling.
In 1937 Bethlehem was proclaimed “Christmas City, USA“, having been founded on Christmas Eve 1741. In the early 1960s the Chamber of Commerce developed a Christmas tourism program that focused on the white lights in the historic Moravian buildings and the authentic religious celebrations of the season including the Moravian “Putz.” Tourism was not a focus of economic activity in Bethlehem, even though thanks to its Moravian founders the city has the largest collection of 18th Century Germanic style buildings in the United States. By 1980 more than 400 group tours plus thousands of individuals were traveling to Bethlehem each December to experience The Christmas City.
As the issues at Bethlehem Steel become more of a challenge, and the downtown had a few empty buildings, the Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee took on the task of trying to attract visitors to Bethlehem at a time of the year other than Christmas. The committee headed by Jeffrey Parks, a Bethlehem native and young attorney, proposed Musikfest, a nine-day celebration of music in the City’s Moravian District. Music has always been a major part of the culture of Bethlehem, beginning with the Moravians who used music as a central part of their worship and who brought many musical instruments from Europe. Many of the works of classical composers of the 18th Century were first performed in the new world in Bethlehem. The city also hosts the oldest Bach Choir in the world. Music is a primary course of study at Moravian College, the sixth oldest college in the United States and the first to educate women, as well as the public school system. The German name for the festival was proposed to draw attention to the City’s Moravian heritage, which included German as the language of the community from 1741 to 1840 when non-Moravians were first permitted to own land in the town.
The design of the festival included music performance spaces in the restored Moravian district called “platzes.” These included the Sun Inn Courtyard, Main Street, Central Moravian Church, the Moravian Colonial Industrial Quarter and the outdoor Performing Arts Pavilion at Moravian College. Organizers went to the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass a law permitting the sale of beer for nine days and allowing it to be carried through the streets from platz to platz. Several businesses signed on for sponsorship and the Mayor Paul Marcincin agreed to donate city services, overruling his entire cabinet.
Musikfest and Christkindlmarkt
On Aug. 18, 1984 the first Musikfest opened with a ceremony at Bethlehem’s City Hall, followed by a short parade to Festplatz, the “big tent” where beer was tapped. A band from Bavaria launched into polkas, while wursts, strudel and a variety of German food was served. Before the event ended August 26, there were t-shirts that said “my platz or yours” and people who lived in Bethlehem but had never been downtown discovered their city and its heritage for the first time. Plus, more than 180,000 people enjoyed music, camaraderie and fun in their historic downtown.
Today, the event is attracting its third generation of families, many of whom started in strollers. Musikfest has become the signature festival for the community with each new generation of parents bringing their children. Each family has a Musikfest tradition, whether it’s parking on the lawn of a friend who lives downtown or sharing an ice cream and strawberry waffle.
Now the largest free music festival in the United States, Musikfest attracts between 850,000 and 1.1 million people annually (depending on weather). The festival features 10 outdoor stages (including our ticketed main stage) and five indoor stages, offering 500 live music performances of all different genres by artists from throughout the region, across the country and around the world. The event has an annual economic impact estimated at $67 million, but its impact on the morale of the residents and the image of Bethlehem as a culturally vibrant community is priceless.
The Bethlehem Musikfest Association (BMA) initially gained a reputation as an arts organization with a business-like approach. In 1993, in an effort to support the declining holiday tourism business, BMA borrowed a German custom, Christkindlmarkt, and brought it to Bethlehem. Historically, the “Christ child markets” were held in town squares throughout German speaking countries to allow merchants to offer special wares to residents for holiday giving. In Germany most markets are held Dec. 1-24 and are completely outdoors, with heavy compliments of “gluhwein” – a sweetened red wine served hot.
Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem was designed for Americans, with heated tents housing a juried crafts show, specialty retailers, food and entertainment court, plus an outdoor courtyard with ice sculpting, glassblowing and vendors. Today Christkindlmarkt is celebrated at ArtsQuest’s SteelStacks campus during the five weekends prior to Christmas, attracting more than 60,000 guests from dozens of states and foreign countries annually. Revenues from the market support the free programs offered by ArtsQuest throughout the year.
In early 1996 BMA sought to support the City’s revitalization by creating a cultural center for arts and education, especially for young people in the community. Mayor Kenneth Smith recommended a former banana distribution warehouse at the western gateway to the SouthSide as a location that the City wanted to develop. The property had been vacant since 1988 when its operations were moved to Bethlehem’s suburbs. In November 1995, Bethlehem Steel shut down its home plant on the City’s SouthSide. Several thousand people lost their jobs, the city lost 20 percent of its land mass from the tax roles, and steelmaking in the city ceased.
With the strong support of local philanthropist Marlene “Linny” Fowler, BMA purchased the former Theodoredis Banana distribution warehouse in September 1996. Renovations commenced and in January 1998, the Banana Factory Arts Center opened. The immediate impact of the Banana Factory and the First Friday open house program it instituted was that it gave hope to people both in Bethlehem and the surrounding Lehigh Valley region that South Bethlehem might become the hip, funky college town that the residents saw in nearby Philadelphia and New York. With studios for artists, a gallery, gift shop, ceramics studio, photography classroom, painting and drawing classroom and a community room, along with dance and drama education studios for partner Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, the Banana Factory immediately added an arts atmosphere to the SouthSide, where Lehigh University had just opened the Zoellner Arts Center and local institutions Godfrey Daniels Coffee House and Touchstone Theatre had been cultural anchors since the 1970s.
In 2000, BMA formally change its name to ArtsQuest and purchased a former auto parts store adjacent to the Banana Factory, thus extending the facility and parking lot for a strategic city block. Two years later, the nonprofit completed the expansion of the Banana Factory to incorporate the large new Crayola Gallery, the R.K. Laros Ceramics Classroom, the general arts classroom and the Banko Family Community Room. In 2001 Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy, and in 2003 the assets of Bethlehem Steel, including the home plant, were sold to International Steel Group, later purchased by Mittal Steel.
Since 2003, the Banana Factory has added the Olympus Digital Imaging Center, a gift from Olympus when it moved its American headquarters to the region; the ArtsQuest Glass Studio, the region’s only teaching hot glass studio; and additional artist studios, raising the total to 30 resident artists. In 2013, the arts center also added a new home for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, with access to arts classes and activities for children with cancer and their families.
Through the Banana Factory, ArtsQuest has offered educational opportunities to thousands of community residents through diverse programs including:
- B-Smart (an after-school enrichment program for middle school students presented in collaboration with the Bethlehem Area School District)
- Holy Infancy Arts Program (a program of intense arts activities for the K-8 Catholic School located a few blocks from the Banana Factory)
- Scholarships for any adult or child to any class or camp offered at the Banana Factory
- More than 300 classes and workshops for adults and children annually, as well as camps for children
- 15 art exhibits annually in the three galleries
- First Fridays, which attract 200-600 people each month
Through the Banana Factory’s program and ArtsQuest’s arts and cultural festivals, ArtsQuest offers exposure opportunities for hundreds of regional visual artists throughout the year.
SteelStacks became the “BHAG” (big hairy, audacious goal) for ArtsQuest starting in 2002 with a visit by ArtsQuest leaders to repurposed steel mills and coal mines in Germany.
While the long-term ownership of the former Bethlehem Steel plant was still in doubt, ArtsQuest invited nonprofit arts, education and pubic media organizations to brainstorm on the possibility of an “arts park” in the former plant. As a result of these meetings the local PBS affiliate, PBS39, committed to partnering on the development of an arts and culture campus eventually named SteelStacks.
In 2004 an investor group purchased the 120-acre historic core of the steel plant that runs along the Lehigh River on the City’s SouthSide. That same year, the Pennsylvania Legislature approved slots casino gaming. In 2006, the state awarded a license to the Las Vegas Sands Corporation for a casino on the eastern end of the core steel site, with the understanding that the Sands would donate approximately 10 acres to ArtsQuest, PBS39 and the City of Bethlehem for an arts campus.
In keeping with our mission, the goal of SteelStacks was to supplement cultural offerings in the region so that residents would not have to travel to New York or Philadelphia for those offerings, and to provide exposure and development for regional artists. To that end SteelStacks and its anchor, the ArtsQuest Center, include:
- The Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, the only full-time, two-screen independent film cinema in the region
- The Musikfest Café, a dramatic two-story concert venue with a glass wall highlighting the illuminated blast furnaces directly behind the stage. The Café seats 500 guests at tables and chairs and can hold a standing room audience of 1,000. The design was intended to fill the gap for national and international performers whose fees range from between $3,000 and $30,000 and for whom there was no dedicated venue in the region. It is also a dynamic showcase for featuring the region’s talented local artists. The venue’s concerts now draw more 40,000 people per year.
- Highmark Blue Shield Community Stage –This stage offers performance opportunities and exposure for regional artists in a free environment every Thursday through Saturday evening and for music students on Sunday afternoons. It’s located outdoors on the Air Products Town Square in warmer months and indoors in the Capital BlueCross Creativity Commons of the ArtsQuest Center during colder months.
- The Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, which is a partnership with the national Levitt Pavilions, offers at least 50 free family friendly concerts on its lawn throughout the summer months, plus a weekly summer family film series. These concerts now draw more than 50,000 people per year.
In May 2009 the Sands Casino opened, and that fall groundbreaking was held for the ArtsQuest Center.
On April 15, 2011, the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks opened, followed by the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks on July 2; PBS39 Public Media and Education Center on Aug. 26, and the Bethlehem Visitor Center in August 2012. In the first eight months of operation, SteelStacks attracted more than 700,000 visitors. In 2013, that number climbed to over 850,000.
In addition to ArtsQuest programs and festivals, including new festivals created since the nonprofit moved to the campus, SteelStacks has become home to community celebrations and public events such as the five-state Muscular Dystrophy Association Rally, Rodale Runners World Half Marathon, St. Luke’s University Health Network Night of Heroes.
To date more than $80 million has been invested in one of the most unique arts and culture campuses in the world, with more on the way. In 2014, the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority will complete the transition of the former Bethlehem Steel elevated railroad track that extends for one-half mile between the Sands Hotel and SteelStacks into a linear park where guests can explore the mighty blast furnaces and their history at close range. Soon ArtsQuest will complete development of the 26,000-square-foot “Turn and Grind Shop” into a new programming facility, which will serve to meet the demand for educational exhibits, sculpture and three-dimensional art shows, family performances and community events.
SteelStacks is a tremendous success for the City and the region. Most recruiters for local businesses, hospitals and educational institutions report bringing candidates for positions to SteelStacks to demonstrate the cultural vitality of the region.
When ArtsQuest planned SteelStacks, leaders drew a 40-mile radius around Bethlehem, a city of 76,000. Within that radius, 2.7 million people reside in western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. ArtsQuest and community leaders no longer think of Bethlehem as a place that you need to leave to seek culture. Instead, we think of Bethlehem as a center of arts and culture in which we have made access at the arts much easier than going into a big city.
People now think of Bethlehem as a cultural center with great opportunities for creative people. Imagine that!