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A Fruit Belt oasis for the arts finds its funding endangered

In a small painting studio flooded with afternoon sunlight and crowded with half-finished canvases, Molly Bethel leaned forward in her chair, rested her elbows on a paint-spackled table and recited her creed.

"I believe, I really believe," Bethel said, "that everybody has a basic human right to have a realistic opportunity to develop whatever talents and interests they may have."

Fifty years ago, spurred on by that belief, Bethel launched the organization that became Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, a community institution that has instilled a love for the arts in thousands of students from across the city's East Side and beyond.

Over the decades, Bethel and her staff have woven their free, grassroots art school on the crumbling western edge of Buffalo's Fruit Belt deeply into the culture of the community where it stands. Nowhere was that more evident than at the Juneteenth Festival last weekend in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where Locust Street's booth offering $1 family portraits has been one of the most popular features of the festival for the past decade.

Today, the walls of the former convent on Locust Street -- with rooms dedicated to painting, ceramics and photography and an attic full of individual artists' studios -- are covered in paintings, drawings and photographs from generations of students who have taken the free classes Bethel and her small staff have offered. The 50th Anniversary Art Show runs until 6 p.m. today, with music by members of the Colored Musicians Club, and on Tuesday from noon to 6 p.m.

Kenn Morgan, who teaches photography at Locust Street, reflected on the grassroots nature of the school, a rarity in a world where strategic planning, top-down organization and digital teaching methods are the order of the day. "It's a situation now that the whole world should know about," Morgan said. "There's very few places in the state, in the country, in the world, that teach art from the ground up."

After 50 years of serving an underprivileged community, Bethel is used to patching together the school's modest budget (about $100,000 per year) from a mind-boggling range of sources, including the New York State Council on the Arts, local foundations, companies and individual donors. But this year -- because of a low score on an application vetted by the Erie County Cultural Resources Allocation Board -- the organization is getting no money from Erie County, which has consistently provided about $10,000 to the school annually.

Ujima Theatre executive director Lorna Hill called the county's decision not to fund the classes "beyond upsetting."

"How are you not gonna fund Locust Street? That's plain nuts. If you've never been in there, you can't even imagine," Hill said. "It would be like throwing Mother Teresa's dress up over her head, that's what it's like. It's that disrespectful."

Grant Loomis, spokesman for Erie County Executive Chris Collins, said that the "elimination of county funding in the 2010 budget is not a reflection of the important mission of Locust Street."

Bethel reflected on the importance of public funding for the arts.

"I think it's to everyone's benefit and I think I'm a good example of that," Bethel said. "In my family, nobody was in the arts. I discovered painting through a place" -- the Cornelia Yuditzky School of Creative Art in Washington, D.C. -- "that had originally started as a WPA project."

The future of the school is uncertain.

Bethel had been grooming her daughter, Lenore Bethel-Cooper, to take over the organization. But when Bethel-Cooper died last June at 40, an entire community mourned and the once-solid future of the organization became a question mark.

Bethel's legendary determination has lately been frustrated by the difficulty of making her grassroots school work in a funding climate that increasingly trumpets economic impact above activating the imagination, tourism potential above community service.

And though her resolve shows no signs of flagging, Bethel reflected on what might happen if organizations like Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes can no longer survive. "There's an awful lot of people who are going to get left out," she said. "And I believe that society cannot afford to waste the talents of those people."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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