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Courtesy
Steve Franks, left, and Christopher Homco, right, sport VandeZande's "Keep Fort Wayne Weird" t-shirts at Lunch on the Square this summer.

'Keep Fort Wayne Weird' could save our city's soul

Courtesy
A print by Julie Toles of Hedgehog Press called "Burning Bright." It is an intaglio and relief print.

Maybe you’ve seen the T-shirts around town or heard the slogan: “Keep Fort Wayne Weird.”

It started about a year ago, when a local silkscreen artist, Leigha VandeZande, 24, of Fort Wayne began printing T-shirts to promote her work. She even started a Twitter account for the project.

But what began as a slogan to sell her own art has the potential to benefit local artists and businesses around the city who can harness the slogan’s potential.

“Keep Fort Wayne Weird” is about more than offbeat self-expression or spreading feel-good messages. It’s about putting strong financial support behind local art and small businesses, so creators and entrepreneurs can stay in Fort Wayne as our city grows and develops downtown.

“We've started an ART Revolution,” says the Keep Fort Wayne Weird Twitter profile (@keepFWweird). “Underground Art, Music and Entertainment in Fort Wayne. For everyone who wants to get weird.”

But this “weird” idea didn’t start in Fort Wayne. It’s part of a national movement that began in Austin, Texas, in 2000 when a community college librarian made a donation to an offbeat radio program and said he was donating to it because it “keeps Austin weird.”

Then he and his wife started selling bumper stickers with the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” to promote the idea that small towns should celebrate the things that make them different from corporate chains and mainstream America.

Since then, the phrase has been commandeered by the Austin Independent Business Alliance as a way of promoting local arts and businesses, and through the years, the movement has spread to other cities, including ours.

As an artist struggling to balance full-time work with her passion to create and contribute to Fort Wayne’s art scene in her spare time, VandeZande felt like the slogan hit home for her.

Even though Fort Wayne is a largely conservative city, she’s seen changes in the diversity and prevalence of art culture around town, and it makes her optimistic that Fort Wayne is “weird” enough to do the slogan justice.

“The diverse community that we have in Fort Wayne makes it weird,” VandeZande said, adding that people’s hidden talents, such as fire performing and other odd arts, contribute to the city’s weird factor.

As the local arts scene grows and gains recognition around town, she hopes other artists, musicians and businesses come alongside her to promote the “weird” community here.

But so far, growing interest in Fort Wayne’s art culture hasn’t translated into enough sales to allow many artists around town the privilege of focusing on their crafts full-time.

“It’s so hard to sell art,” VandeZande said.

Organizations, such as the Wunderkammer Company art gallery, have helped connect and sustain local artists, but it’s going to take more interest and purchasing power of the general public to keep artists and small businesses active in our developing city.

Julie Toles, 28, of Hedgehog Press is one of the few artists around town who was recently able to make the switch from full-time to part-time in her second job so she can spend more time focusing on her print press venture.

She opened a shop at 1136 Columbia Ave. in March 2013, and since then she’s been doing well, acquiring loyal customers to buy her print products and enroll in her printmaking workshops.

But she’s also found that while many people around town are willing to look at artwork and show support for it with words of encouragement, words won’t pay the bills.

Financial support is more difficult to secure in small cities such as Fort Wayne, especially in a recovering economy.

“Selling art is a marathon of highs and lows,” Toles said. “There are more lows than highs in Fort Wayne. People like to look at art, but putting money down for it is a little harder.”

She encourages us to be more conscious of how we shop and who we’re supporting, even if we’re on a budget.

Small businesses like Hedgehog Press do a lot for shaping our city’s identity, and as downtown becomes more walkable, I’d love to see cute, local shops like that fill empty storefronts in trendy areas, such as The Landing, South Calhoun Street and along the riverfront.

But like Austin, Fort Wayne is at risk of watching its quirky, local shops lose out to big corporate competitors as downtown develops.

Toles said she was hoping to move her shop downtown someday, but the prices of storefronts have gone up since the groundbreaking on the Ash Skyline Plaza, as bigger investors buy out space anticipating a wealthier market downtown in coming years.

For those of us who want to see downtown develop, this creates a catch-22 of sorts because we want big companies like Ash downtown so our city has more clout. At the same time, we don’t want to push prices downtown out of reach of small business owners.

That’s why there’s hope in this “Keep Fort Wayne Weird” slogan.

A study this year by researchers at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and Harvard Business School shows that when small businesses identify themselves as small and quirky underdogs in the corporate world, they are more likely to attract customers.

“People are drawn to companies whose stories they perceive to mirror their own experiences,” said an article called “The quirks of smallness” in The Atlantic.

Maybe if more local artists and businesses can latch onto this “Keep Fort Wayne Weird” concept and show the city how they contribute to what makes us special, they can gain more customers, and we won’t lose our soul as the city expands.

Keep growing, Fort Wayne, but stay weird.

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