From its home on Broad Street, Sweetwater seeks a wider audience

Since it opened in 1975, Sweetwater Center for the Arts has been evolving to meet the needs of its members and community. Now it’s poised to take a giant step into the future, with classes ranging from painting and ceramics to writing and acting, music, and even cooking and nutrition.

“During the last couple of years, we’ve been pretty quietly developing new ideas, and we’re ready to take some risks and sort of shout it from the rooftops and let people know what’s going on out here,” said executive director Nichole Remmert.

“We’re very intentionally developing a path forward for the next 42 years that supports innovative and relevant arts and cultural programming in a safe and welcoming environment. We want to have something here for literally every person, from a 3-year-old to a 99-year-old taking a first improvisation or oil painting class, from a beginner to the longtime, very skilled artist.

“Inclusion has to be intentional. It doesn’t just happen,” she said.

Sweetwater, which has been in a century-old former post office since 1988, offers classes year-round, and enrollment last year was 1,700. Approximately half of the students live in Sewickley or nearby areas; others come from Cranberry, Moon, Coraopolis and Beaver County. Last summer, a family from Conneaut Lake stayed in a local hotel for a week so their son could attend art camp, Ms. Remmert said.

Culinary classes, which range from Indian food to home brewing, increased in 2012 when the kitchen was renovated. In addition to children and teen classes, there are culinary-focused summer camps. Food preparation is also the focus of a partnership with Class Academy of Baden, an alternative school.

“They’re learning nutritional fundamentals — how to feed themselves, basic cooking skills, making choices at the grocery store. Those are also potential job skills,” Ms. Remmert said. “We’d like to grow that program, to get funding and a van so we can take them from farm to kitchen.”

Each year, about six art exhibitions feature regional and national artists. The current exhibition, “Familiar Spaces,” comprises small-scale charcoal drawings by Lauren Scavo and continues through Sept. 9. Inspired by the Western Pennsylvania landscape, the artist examines the connection between human consciousness and its surrounding environment. She will give an artist talk at 7 p.m. Thursday (suggested donation $5, refreshments will be served).

Earlier this summer, Sweetwater exhibited “Turning Red,” a show inspired by Pennsylvania voting Republican in a presidential election for the first time in 28 years. Artists who live in the state were invited to submit work to the juried show, and all political viewpoints were welcome.

“We want to stay relevant by offering a platform for artists to show these works, but we don’t necessarily want to push ideas on anybody,” said artistic coordinator Alexandra Watrous.

In 2014, Sweetwater began purchasing artworks from the exhibitions for its collection. Artists and collectors began donating art, mostly paintings and drawings, to the center a decade ago.

“As we move forward, we’d like to continue that and also add contemporary works and abstraction,” Ms. Watrous said.

One of the center’s most popular events is the MAVUNO Festival of African American Art and Culture, encompassing music, visual arts, poetry, storytelling and literature. The 21st annual event will begin Sept. 22.

Elizabeth (Betty) Asche Douglas, an artist, educator and songstress, was a festival founder and lecturer at last year’s event. She said the idea began with Joan James, the first African-American teacher at Sewickley Academy, who established its Black History program. Mrs. Asche Douglas was a visiting artist for the academy and also on the Sweetwater board.

“Sewickley had been a playground of wealthy Pittsburghers, who all had black servants,” Mrs. Asche Douglas said. “Relationships between the races were old school.”

In the mid-1990s, some people from Sewickley Academy, Sweetwater and other institutions met to discuss ways to increase racial awareness.

“We wanted a special emphasis on African and African-American creativity. And we all agreed it would not be held during Black History Month,” Mrs. Asche Douglas said.

She was teaching at Geneva College then, and one of her students was from Africa. He told her class about a harvest festival named Mavuno, which gave the festival its name.

“It was such a big success that it continued,” she said.

Ms. Remmert, 42, grew up in Moon and has lived in other states, Europe and the Washington, D.C., area. With a background in fundraising and development, she did some marketing and development work at Sweetwater after she returned to the area five years ago for family reasons. She was appointed executive director more than a year ago.

Sweetwater employs three full-time and five part-time staff members. The 2017 budget is $660,000, and approximately 63 percent of its revenue comes from classes. The rest is from government grants, foundations, donations and memberships. The center awards $10,000 in full or partial scholarships annually.

“We never say no so long as they demonstrate need,” Ms. Remmert said.

M. Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

A GIFT FOR THE ARTS. DONATE TODAY.

When you or a family member is looking to take an art class, view an exhibition, or attend a cultural event, where do you turn? If you're like most in our community, you go to Sweetwater Center for the Arts.

$1,000 provides enough materials to fund a semester-long community outreach program.
$500 allows two senior citizens to take an oil painting class.
$250 provides enough clay for every student in an 8-week ceramics class.
$200 will send a child to summer camp for a week.
$100 provides the food for a culinary workshop.
$50 provides materials for two weeks of painting camps.

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