Art and culture can fuel lives, communities and regions, about 200 artists and cultural leaders agreed yesterday.

But what if no one sees or hears either? What if no one funds them? What if no one even knows about them?

Such questions lay behind a months-long effort to solicit thoughts from across the region on how to bolster the arts in the Philadelphia area and the organizations devoted to them.

The Big Canvas, sponsored by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, The Inquirer, the Lenfest Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation, yielded some broad goals articulated by hundreds of focus-group participants. These goals, in turn, elicited many more from the 200 or so participants gathered at the Radisson Valley Forge Hotel & Convention Center to consider the Big Canvas findings.

Marjorie O. Rendell, federal judge and former chair of the Avenue of the Arts when her husband, Gov. Rendell, was mayor of Philadelphia in the 1990s, noted that the Philadelphia arts corridor on Broad Street had to be conjured almost from nothing.

"We decided at the outset that we would market the Avenue of the Arts and create a place," Rendell said in her keynote address. The strategy, she argued, can be applied to the entire region.

"I think we want the region to be prominent from an arts and culture standpoint," she said, "something we can envision." Should that occur, "there is no way" the investment would not produce results.

The artists and cultural officials responding to Rendell and to the focus groups noted that the region's cultural fabric had faced particular challenges even before the national economy began its rapid meltdown this fall. Poor public transportation, lack of information about cultural activities, lack of funding, lack of a spirit of collaboration and cooperation within the arts community, lack of broad regional planning - all have hindered development of the area's cultural potential, many said.

Douglas Dolan, head of the Mercer Museum in Bucks County, said that "regional does have to mean region."

"The Avenue of the Arts extends from Wilmington to Easton," he added.

Gary Steuer, Philadelphia's chief cultural officer, said he had already spoken with Mayor Nutter along similar lines. A region contains multiple "avenues of the arts," he said.

"The arts can play a critical role in creating a sense of place throughout the region," Steuer said.

David Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government, suggested that practical ideas had to be crafted to promote arts activities and then sold to legislators in Harrisburg. The legislators, he said, amount to "your customers."

Several of those legislators, plus local, city and county officials, attended the session. State Sen. Andrew Dinneman (D., Chester) said regional action was a fine concept, but politicians are "not going to walk the walk until it's in everyone's interest."

He also noted that a few large museums and cultural organizations received the lion's share of state funding. Breaking that practice could begin to open up possibilities for regional action.

"Show that the arts community is one," Dinneman urged participants.

Chris Satullo, former Inquirer editorial page editor and now WHYY's executive director of news and civic dialog and a leader of the Big Canvas, said the participants' work would be distilled into concrete proposals over the next few months.

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.