Long before conservative politicians heaped scorn on the artwork of Keith Haring, a West Main Street gallery in Kutztown hosted a well-received exhibit of his work.
It was 1987 and the New Arts Program (NAP) at 173 W. Main St. brought the artist back to his hometown for a showing of his work.
Haring, just 29 years old at the time, was a rising star in the art world and about 750 people showed up to see his work.
Already famous for his subway chalk drawings and graffiti-style artwork, Haring turned his attention to the floor of the gallery.
"He wanted to tie it all together," said James Carroll, 72, the gallery's self-described creator, curator and sometimes resident curmudgeon.
Haring dashed over to Weaver's Hardware, brought back a gallon of black paint and hunched over the hardwood floor, transforming it with his signature style.
It wasn't the first connection Haring made with the program and it wouldn't be the last.
In 1984, Carroll worked with Haring on the "Kutztown Connection," Haring's title for a night of performances in New York City that raised money for the program.
Haring later donated the image for "Kutztown Connection," a Hex sign over the New York City skyline, so the program could use it on silk-screened t-shirts and posters.
"He was always accessible," Carroll said of Haring's contributions to the program.
But Haring isn't the only well-known artist that has helped Carroll make the NAP a mecca for art aficionados in the area.
Others, such as musician Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg, have contributed their time to helping the non-profit arts program raise money.
Their help, combined with private donations and a small subsidy from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts has helped Carroll support working artists.
His emphasis on living artists, he says, is what distinguishes his program from museums and larger galleries, which often promote what he calls "the dead artists."
"This is not a mausoleum," Carroll said, referring to the large tombs where usually wealthy or famous members of society are buried. "Most large museums sell the idea of a mausoleum."
Despite its large population of art and performance majors, Carroll said Kutztown University (KU) sends few of its students to his gallery. And the ones that do show up are often rude, Carroll said and described their knack for leaving in the middle of a performance and other unacceptable behavior.
Carroll taught art at KU for 33 years and knows well both its art students and faculty.
But the university is what drove him to start the program. Not because he wanted to extend the academic experience, but because he wanted to escape it.
"I wanted someone to talk to," Carroll said of the motivating force to form the program.
With so many of his colleagues concerned with more trivial matters such as who was sleeping with whom, Carroll suffered from a shortage of dialogue on art and art criticism, he said.
And, "the students are programmed not to think for themselves," he added.
Also, unlike the university, Carroll says he promotes an equal exchange of ideas.
Since the NAP started in 1974, Carroll has invited artists to participate in one-to-one consultations, which are a series of dialogues between the artist and anyone from the public interested in talking to that artist.
Rather than university students, the program's exhibits and performances mainly draw people from the Lehigh Valley and to a lesser extent Reading, he said.
But the NAP is well-known in the art community, even in large metro areas like Philadelphia and New York City, Carroll said.
But that, too, he insists should be kept in perspective.
"The art world is miniscule in the greater scheme of things," he said, holding up his thumb and forefinger to illustrate the place of the NAP in the world.
Contact Dan Roman at email@example.com.