FSA Principal Jill Schuman Celebrates Abington Arts Center's 75th Year

Abington Art Center is not your cookie-cutter community art hub, according to Executive Director Betsy Kilkenny.

For 75 years, AAC has been a staple in Abington Township with an evolving scope of programs, events and opportunities focused on its vision to allow the "benefit of cultural enrichment for individual and community life be derived from creative, artistic expression."

With this vision seeming to guide all the art center offers, AAC plans to celebrate its 75th year by working toward preserving itself for 75 more.

"We are passionate about our mission and passionate about what we do to serve the community and enabling people of all ages to participate in the arts at whatever level they choose," Kilkenny said April 28. "We have many diverse audiences around here, and we want to ensure the classes, exhibitions, events and the artists really speak to the community."

"We want to first and foremost present the work of the community and serve the community. I think that's how we are going to continue for the next 75 years."

Established in 1939 as the Old York Road Art Guild, AAC became the Abington Art Center in 1965 after the guild decided to incorporate its programs under a separate nonprofit identity, according to AAC's website. AAC moved to its current location at Alverthorpe Manor at 515 Meetinghouse Road in the Jenkintown section of the township in 1969, after rare book and print collector, Lessing Rosenwald, and his wife, Edith, donated their estate to the township for community use, it stated.

AAC serves an estimated 35,000 people a year through its five areas of focus: exhibitions, on-and off-site studio classes, community programs, the sculpture park and art programs for special needs. AAC is working to "refresh and re-energize the community art experience" thanks to a grant provided by the William Penn Foundation that has helped fund a strategic plan, Kilkenny said.

"In the six years I have been on the board, this is the second time we have done an intensive strategic plan," AAC Board Chair Jill Schuman said. "I think all not-for-profits, and all organizations period, constantly have to examine their activities and make sure they're in line with their mission."

One way that AAC has already begun to put the plan into motion is by updating its class roster to include opportunities like digital photography, culinary arts, creative writing, fashion design and a potential clay animation class, in addition to the traditional painting and ceramic courses, Kilkenny said.

Many AAC participates have been coming to the center for more than 20 years. Kilkenny said they are listening to suggestions of the community and trying to give them the artistic experiences they want.

As well as providing on-site classes, AAC brings the arts "to you," so to speak, by hosting art classes at local senior centers and providing learning opportunities for children with special needs, she said.

In addition to adding unique art courses, other ways Kilkenny hopes to sustain the art center for another 75-plus years is by expanding its 27-acre sculpture park, which circles the rear of the manor and encompasses 25 sculptures. The goal is to expand the park with more interactive pieces, such as children's sculptures, a community garden or an environmental learning site, she explained.

Although AAC is focused on strategic planning, it also seemed focused on providing a vibrant and community-centered atmosphere, especially in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

To honor this milestone, AAC kicked off the year-long celebration in January with a kid's birthday bash, which included a 70-foot birthday cake. AAC is also gearing up for its annual Arts Advocacy Awards Dinner and Dance May 8, which will honor the center's accomplishments, as well as many of its long-term students and leaders in the community, Kilkenny said. Anyone is welcome to this event, she said, which will include a silent auction, wine tasting and live music provided by The Wyncote Brass Band and jazz vocalist Barbara Jackson. Tickets are $85 for AAC members and $100 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased at www.abingtonartcenter.org.

Kilkenny and Schuman both believe the arts are a vital part of the community in that they can help boost the economy and help bring people together.

According to the 2012 economic impact study released by the Cultural Alliance, AAC was able to provide approximately 52 full-time jobs and provide $207 million in tax revenue to the government.

Similar to boosting the economy, the arts also seem to build a sense of community.

"Art is a universal language," Schuman said. "We want people to come here and share the experience of art, and get individual enrichment from it. I'm awed by the talent and creativity here. I think it makes me a better person to know that this exists."