The Fulton Renaissance

How a rural community is reimagining its identity through the arts.

            In 2011, Nancy Fox put an ad in the Fulton Daily News inviting anyone from the community to attend a meeting in a church basement. She had decided that her town was in desperate need of an Arts Center – an idea that took many by surprise. “An arts center in Fulton?” many people asked, to which she replied: “Why not?” Despite some early skepticism, 14 people attended that first meeting. In addition to developing the resources to promote a diverse range of artistic opportunities, their efforts were focused on a core problem: how do you mobilize a community to form an arts center when most residents had never interacted with one before?

Gaston (Charlie Stoutenger) poses for the adoration of the crowd in this scene from Disney’s Beauty and Beast, Jr. The annual Jr production brings more than 30 kids together onstage each spring at CNY Community Arts Center.

          The fact was that Fulton was already facing a number of important challenges. Nearly a decade had passed since the Nestle plant had closed, and no other industry had emerged to replace it. Economically, the situation is still a difficult one. As Fox put it, “We have a lot of hurting people.” But what Fox understood was that the challenges Fulton was facing were reasons for an arts center – not against. “Being involved in arts means using problem solving and creative thinking which are essential for every path or career in life,” Fox says. “Getting people involved in the arts leads to people making changes in their lives.”

            Despite having a background in theater and a drive to expand her idea, Fox did not have much experience building up an organization in the way that she wanted to expand the CNY Arts Center. In 2015, she reached out to the Gifford Foundation. “Gifford embraced us and gave us opportunities, not just via grants but also through programs like POWER which helped our board come together and function better.” The POWER program (People & Organizations With Energy & Resilience) is a 12 month capacity building initiative designed to assist grassroots organizations in building their internal capacity and resiliency; Nancy Fox participated in the first POWER program ever to be offered.

           The POWER program aims to increase the strength and operating capacity of small selected nonprofits by connecting them with consultants, offering the opportunity for a self-assessment, and providing regular coaching and support. When Fox had to step aside for six weeks to deal with a family illness, the POWER program was able to provide the resources and support needed to help the organization figure out a way to continue to function smoothly even when its director was not present. Part of this meant ensuring that the CNY Arts Center had assembled an active, functional, and diverse board. Sure enough, the organization was able to continue growing during Nancy’s absence. “From the beginning,” said Fox, “Gifford was a wonderful resource.”

Monique Harrison displays her original handmade art at a recent outdoor Arts Market held weekly at the Arts Center. Monique has grown from teenage volunteer to teaching artist and director of the annual summer Arty Camp. 

           The CNY Arts Center also participated in Gifford’s Story Growing initiative, which connected them with Daylight Blue Media and other consultants who helped tell their story. Together, they put together a video entitled “Fulton’s Future” which explored the impact of The Center on the Fulton community as a whole and the importance of participation in the arts. “Whether it’s a character on stage, a piece of music, or a painting – you’ve created change in your life,” says Fox in the video, “And if you can change one little part of your life, hey – there’s hope to change more.” As Fulton continues to evolve, those involved with The Center hope that the arts will bring people together and be a new and important component of town’s identity.

           Nancy Fox still serves as the Director of The Center, which is now moving into and renovating a 7,000 square foot space in downtown Fulton. The previously abandoned space is now home to a broad range of creative endeavors, including theater, painting classes, writing workshops, children’s programs, and organized efforts to brighten up the city by adding parks and working on home improvement projects. As Fox put it, “We help people find the areas they are passionate about and start improving them.” The positive effects of the CNY Arts Center are not just aesthetic. By moving into a more central location, it is better positioned to serve as a hub and economic driver for the downtown area. As people are drawn in and participate in The Center’s events, they find themselves within walking distance of the local restaurants and shops located nearby.

           For many residents of Fulton, the CNY Arts Center can provide the impetus to tackle long-standing aspirations, or projects that have been postponed for too long. Fox emphasizes that “It’s not just for kids – we work hard to make sure that adults get involved too.” One participant who had worked for years as a cake decorator got involved with The Center with the hopes of learning to paint and improving her writing skills. Today, she is still actively enrolled in painting classes and is about to publish her third book. She also writes a regular column for the Fulton newspaper.

          The CNY Arts Center has grown significantly over the past eight years and now has a team of staff and volunteers totaling between 40 and 50 people. They also have plans to expanding the number of paid employees instead of relying mainly on volunteer assistance. The success of this project offers clear proof that the arts have a strong and meaningful role to play in rural communities – not only in urban ones. We are excited to see how The Center will continue to grow and make use of its new home.