Art can liven up any room or, in the hopes of the Newton Murals and Arts Project group, the hub of a city. That thought process spurred the formation of the group back in March of 2017 — with a specific location helping galvanize the mission for its members.

"Curtis (Stubbs) and I both felt that the area surrounding the farmer's market would attract more business if it were more attractive, and that was kind of the start of it," said local artist Constance Gehring.

Gehring noted the Newton Murals and Arts Project group has been meeting regularly since its inception to organize efforts to "create art for the purpose of beautification." Such efforts are becoming more widespread across Kansas (from Meade to McPherson) and something the group perceives as an opportunity to help maintain community interest and draw outside traffic to the downtown area — aiming to launch the project in Newton this year.

So far, the group has approached the Rotary Club and Central Kansas Community Foundation to assist in organizing donations, while — due to CKCF by-laws — the Newton school district was also approached to help with the distribution of those funds for artists, materials, etc.

Doing so, Gehring noted, gives the Newton Murals and Arts Project group a formal structure allowing it to write grants for additional funding while also providing a credible source for community members to donate. While Gehring said the group is looking for help from outside artists in this project (limited to those from Kansas, with preference given to any based in Newton), who could potentially end up donating time as well, she was clear the input of the Newton community will be a driving force in this project.

"This is a community project because it will be Newton ideas about what should be on those murals, it will be Newton walls and a lot of it's going to be financed or supported by the community," Gehring said. "How much the community supports it will determine how far we can go."

Initially, Gehring said the project will likely extend over three years — given the limited timeframe in which agreeable conditions exist for painting outside — and there are already a handful of businesses that have offered up their walls to be part of the mural project. On top of murals, though, Gehring was quick to note that the group is also looking into doing some free-standing sculptures as part of the project.

Currently, the Newton Murals and Arts Project has all it needs — a design donated by Virgil Penner, volunteer support from Raymond Olais' Newton High School arts classes, funds for materials, etc. — to begin its first mural, with work slated to start in April on the backside of the building at 522 N. Main (which faces the site of the Harvey County Farmer's Market). The last step in clearing the project was entering a memorandum of understanding with USD 373 to provide purchasing authority.

While there were some concerns — notably about additional work and public misperception — voiced by district staff when the proposal was brought forward at this week's board of education meeting, school board members were mostly agreeable to the idea and moving forward with the memorandum.

"I do think it seems like an opportunity for the district to be a partner in community improvement," said board member Toby Tyner.

"It seems like a positive for the community. I appreciate their effort," said board member Matt Treaster. "I think the public will get it; we're being very open about it."

As the project progresses, Gehring is hopeful that the community as a whole will be receptive as well given that she sees a number of benefits that could come from an arts initiative in the downtown area.

"I think many cities are finding that it's a way for them to revitalize areas, to increase foot traffic, to encourage areas as meeting spots and then, of course, there's the visual pleasure of something attractive, which is uplifting for the spirit," Gehring said. "I'm real interested to see where it takes us and what the community wants. This is their town and we're working for them."

Those interested in donating to the project can contact the Central Kansas Community Foundation at 283-5474.