The Play Everywhere Challenge is not just about turning an unconventional spot into an engaging play space. It’s about maximizing creativity to remake an underused locale into a neighborhood beacon for fun—and in some cases, enjoyably stretch the idea of what a community can be.
The Genesee-Orleans Regional Arts Council (GO ART!) believes this. The cultural organization is nestled in Batavia, between Buffalo and Rochester, and is dedicated to providing resources and programming that promotes cultural life throughout its Western New York region. Since moving into their 1800s-era building in 2003, initiatives like their annual creative arts camps and Spark grants have encouraged arts education and appreciation throughout Genesee and Orleans County.
But in the realm of music, they wanted to do more, and they had a neglected space right next to their Main Street office that could accommodate their plans.
With a $70K grant from KABOOM! and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation via Play Everywhere, GO ART! established and unveiled its “Play Me a Tune Music Garden” inside an adjacent alleyway in October of 2019. The former pass-through now features 18 ready-to-use instruments for kids, teens and adults, as well as public art—including a yellow-brick road off Main to lure foot traffic—for visitors to enjoy. According to GO ART! Executive Director Gregory Hallock, the garden provides a great way for families to come together under the locally cherished banner of music appreciation.
“This is a cool thing to do for kids, and parents might have fun doing it, too,” he said. “It was a great way to involve everybody, and knowing how big a thing music is around here, the idea ending up making sense.”
Hallock and the GO ART! team also have ambitious hopes for the future. Along with using the music garden space for a series of classes and other organization-driven initiatives in the coming months and years—as well as a space that other community partners could use, like the neighboring YMCA—they would like to add more art, live music, creativity camps, a giant foot-controlled piano (see: Tom Hanks in “Big”), and an on-site culinary facility to complement a multifaceted cultural garden. Eventually, it could make the enchanting spot an off-I-90 attraction, all while inspiring more free play and similar creations throughout the community.
This is the potential of projects awarded funding through the Play Everywhere Challenge. With the next edition set to open for entries on July 13, 2020, more communities will soon have the chance to creatively enhance underappreciated sections of their neighborhoods with the contest’s $1 million in available grants. This is an exciting opportunity, and according to Hallock, one that organizations across Southeast Michigan and Western New York should seize. In the below Q&A, he discusses the importance of invigorating life with art, operating the Batavia installation amid COVID-19, and what this year’s applicants need to know before applying.
Question: How does music factor into the feel and community life of Batavia?
Gregory Hallock: Music is a big thing out here, with the Genesee Symphony Orchestra and many other [musical options]. There’s a lot, and people support them, but these supporters often skew older. We’re always trying to find ways to get the younger generation involved so we’ll eventually have a new older generation [engaged in music], so we’re always looking for artistic ideas meant to extend these efforts. One of these ideas that came to my head was putting music instruments out there—but since they were so expensive, I didn’t think it could ever happen.
Q: What does this project reveal about a community’s ability to enhance their vitality through interactive art?
GH: The more I talk with local people, I find out that there’s always been ideas, but no way to [execute them]. This has revealed the possibility of doing more. People might think that we’re a rural community and we can’t do what Buffalo and Rochester do, so we should just accept defeat. I don’t think that. I see that we’re in the middle of those two cities, so let’s take advantage of it. We have something people traveling between these two regions should check out. It’s art, and in my opinion, art is what’s going to get us through everything that’s happening right now.
Q: Are children and families returning to the installation now that New York play spaces have started to reopen? If so, what has the reaction been like?
GH: We didn’t finish construction until the end of October—and then winter came. But in November, we’d occasionally hear music outside from a bunch of kids or others passing by. That was truly awesome witnessing all of that. Once winter hit, we had to shut down or else spend time every day shoveling or cleaning off instruments. We had full plans of opening in March or April, and then COVID hit. We’re hoping to open it up again at the end of July, but we’re still developing our full plan of how we’re going to clean it every day and make it as safe as possible.
Q: If you could offer three tips to those planning to submit applications for the next Play Everywhere Challenge, what would they be?
- Call and speak with someone; don’t just apply. Talk to someone, let them know your ideas and get their opinions. Their information can go very far.
- Listen to what you’re told. They want to award you grant monies, so they’re going to give you legit responses to your questions. They’re there to help you.
- Think outside the box. Don’t try to simply duplicate what has worked or won monies in the past. Come up with something new.