EDITOR’S NOTE: Naturally, all of us at Broome Arts Mirror are very excited about the upcoming Heart of the Arts celebration on Sept. 19. To help you join in on the excitement, BAMirror is featuring brief Q&As with our honorees. Today, our conversation is with photographer and public arts advocate Margaret “Peg” Johnston, a recipient of a 2016 Heart of the Arts Award. HOTA recipients are honored for significant recent contributions to and impact on the arts in Broome County. They are nominated by the community and voted upon by the arts council membership. (Coming Sept. 12: HOTA winners Toby Jean and Harold Manker.)
By Barb Van Atta
For many years, Peg Johnston has been active in bringing public art to the streets of Binghamton and making “blight the inspiration for art.” As her nominator pointed out, she had a critical role in “sparking” and continuing an arts renaissance in Binghamton as a founding member of the Cooperative Gallery 213, 213 State St., Binghamton, helping to transform that “derelict” block of State Street between Lewis and Henry streets into the “State of the Art.”
She was nominated in particular for her efforts as one of the founders of the Department of Public Art, which created the Water Street “Birthplace of Virtual Reality Mural Project,” and for her leadership of Mural Fest 2015, which resulted in 30 murals subsequently being placed on boarded-up properties throughout Binghamton. The murals saluted the vibrant, creative past and present of Binghamton.
Peg’s continuing roles include photographer and installation artist, exhibitor of regional and national photographers, artist promoter and mentor, and creator of a community that fosters and values creativity. Her ongoing “Blight is our Canvas” project brings artistic inspiration and hope to the area through art.
Through email, BAMirror asked Johnston the following questions:
What was your reaction to learning that you were a HOTA recipient?
I was very honored that the work I — and many others — have done is getting recognized by the arts community.
HOTA awards are given to people whose recent efforts have advanced the arts in Broome County. What are your future plans for the Department of Public Art and/or Cooperative Gallery?
The Department of Public Art keeps getting bigger and better. On Sept. 17, we are sponsoring Mural Fest 2016, which will be on the North Side of Binghamton at Cheri Lindsey Park, an underserved area if there ever was one. We continue to do our blight program on boarded-up buildings as we get permission.
The Cooperative Gallery members have so much talent, and my primary job at the gallery is to promote the artists and their shows. I have also been encouraging the gallery to use the extra weekend — Fifth Weekend in every quarter — to do something totally different; for instance, Stephen Schweitzer’s light painting and street murals. I have a show every 18 months, and I just finished a collaborative show called TRASH! Eco Art. Eighteen months is a long time away, but it tends to come up fast. I’m thinking of photography with cell phones as a theme.
What do you see as the strong points of the arts community in Broome County? How about the arts audience?
There is such talent in this area that is largely untapped. People are so eager to share their art, and there just aren’t enough venues. The response to Mural Fest and other community events are evidence of that. At the same time, everyone wants free art, which is not fair to artists.
The arts audience is still developing. The Gorgeous Washington Art Walk is a huge boon to the visual arts, but it is only one night a month, and there are still people who have never experienced an art walk. I think that there also needs to be more depth of understanding about art. Art appreciation is not just for the elite!
What can be improved or expanded in the arts community?
More collaboration between different kinds of art — such as Zuma and the Philharmonic; Cooperative Gallery and writing or poetry groups. More interaction with each other creates cross-pollination of audiences.
Also, I think there is a need for critique of art, which may take the form of art education, helping people understand what artists are trying to do. We did a three-gallery tour recently that was very successful. At each gallery there was a short art talk that really helped us understand the art.
How can we attract a greater audience, both locally and from tourists, especially among those who will comprise the audience of the future?
One idea is to have an arts weekend — an opera, a coordinated visual arts event etc. Again, cross-pollination. Galleries need to be open more, which is hard because the audiences are not there. Better information between town and gown.
Can you speak a bit to the concepts of collaborating with other organizations (fellow artists, businesses, etc.) and to serving the underserved in the community?
At the Cooperative Gallery we often have group shows where we challenge each other with some art project —such as the “Off the Wall” show or “Photo and Poetry.”
The important piece about reaching out to the underserved is to involve those who live there and to treat everyone with respect.
Do you have a dream project?
I am really drawn to spontaneous neighborhood art. The “Blight is our Canvas” project was great in that way. Or just making something look better, like planting flowers in a public place, picking up litter or improving a structure or area. Similarly, we would like to paint the utility boxes around the city. I love to see something creative in a place where you are not expecting it. The surprise and delight is the best part of public art.
Remember, the Heart of the Arts Ceremony, celebrating the movers, creators and lovers of the arts in Broome County, will be 6 p.m. Sept. 19 in the grand ballroom of the DoubleTree by Hilton, 245 Water St., Binghamton. The gala event will feature dinner, performances and art displays. For tickets and more information about both the celebration and the HOTA art raffle, visit www.broomearts.org/hota.