Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Contexts: Benton Flippen and Gillian Welch

 photograph courtesy the Music Maker Relief Foundation

Today the Southern Folklife Collection is reporting that the legendary Mount Airy fiddler Benton Flippen has passed away. We had a chance to write about Mr. Flippen last year, and we have great respect for this man and his music; our thoughts go out to Mr. Flippen's family and friends. 

Yesterday also saw the release of the long-awaited The Harrow and The Harvest by Gillian Welch, an artist who has done a great deal to further the cause of traditional and roots music in this country. We feel that the new ways in which Ms. Welch carries forward this music illuminates how we can rethink the place of the rural arts within the rural-urban continuum and within the ever-shifting dialogue between traditional and modern forms of expression. Below, Ms. Welch and David Rawlings perform  "The Way It Goes" last night on The Conan O'Brien Show:

The Arts At The National Rural Assembly

Billy Altom singing his transportation son "Come on man, I want a ride;" Shawn Poynter

As we mentioned before, we are taking part in The National Rural Assembly--and we've met many folks with vital and inspiring projects in the rural arts. We are looking forward to sharing these conversations with our readers when the Assembly concludes later in the week. 

The Daily Yonder is covering the Assembly in real time, so we'd recommend that folks visit the site a few times throughout the day to hear the latest on the day's activities. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: Good Poetry, Good Science

June Twenty-Sixth

As long as one knows little of Nature save that which impinges upon one sensually, one is subject to the moods it throws, like a shadow, across the spirit. But as soon as one begins to search for knowledge in the thing that dims the light, the power of mood fades. A biologist confined to the prison isle of Ste. Marguerite would soon set up some equipment or technique for studying the swallows--the pulsation of their crowding population, the control of their behavior, their effect upon the rest of the animal life of the island, or something else from which significant conclusions could be drawn.

I accept the challenge of the artists that cool investigation may often be the death of poetry. As knowledge lessens the terror of plague, so it may take some of the soulfulness out of nature. There is a sort of Wordsworthian sermonizing that shrinks before a biological frame of mind, just as the childish abhorrence of insects vanishes with familiarity. But not all poetry is really good poetry (however good it may sound). Good poetry is swift-winged, essential and truthful description--and so is good science.

June Twenty-Ninth

The merest beginning upon the little specializing in the swallows led me to the sandbank, to the burrowing bees and their beetle guests, and has sent my thoughts straying upon the biology of the social habit, to which life in a cliff seems to give rise. After all, our own ancestors were cliff dwellers. From there I have strayed in my musings to the nature of parisitism, as it is exhibited by the Hornia beetles, as well as, I learn, several other members of the same family. One may object that all this is reprehensibly diffuse. I should concentrate upon swallows, and not leave them for blister beetles until I know all about the birds. 

But the purpose of studying Nature at all, aside from the distraction which it affords, (and it is in the nature of distraction not to dwell on anything to the point of tedium) is that the study should illuminate the relation of living things to each other, to us, to the environment. One thing should lead to something quite other. Complexity is the keynote of biology--a fact which those who have been trained first in the exact or physical sciences can never seem to grasp. The goal of biological thought is ramification, many-viewpointedness, and a man who drops his swallows uncompleted because he has suddenly grown excited over beetles is simply a man who is growing.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The National Rural Assembly

This week we are excited to report that we will be taking part in the National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, Minnesota. We look forward to sharing the conversations and connections that emerge from this gathering, and we'd like to point folks toward a few ways that they can contribute to the ongoing work of the Assembly from their own home communities.

Most immediately, The Daily Yonder will be covering the week's events in detail; the Assembly is hosting a remarkable list of rural leaders, speaking on a number of topics, so (as always) we can turn to The Daily Yonder for the full perspective.

Also, resources within the Assembly's Working Groups will be particularly useful beyond St. Paul. The areas of focus include transportation, broadband, emerging issues and rural youth--and each individual site contains webinars, essays and commentary that can help guide local discussions.

Folks should also take a moment to consider The Rural Compact, "a set of principles for building stronger rural communities and a stronger nation:"
Rural America is more than the land. It is a way we are connected in culture, heritage, and national enterprise. While it may be vast, it is far from empty. Sixty million of us live in the American countryside, and far more grew up there. Rural Americans reflect the full diversity of the country in who we are, what we do, and what we want to achieve.

When rural communities succeed, the nation does better, and cities and suburbs have more resources on which to build. Conversely, when rural communities falter, it drains the nation’s prosperity and limits what we can accomplish together.

We now face the challenges of how we sustainably fuel, feed, and nurture both ourselves and a fragile world. A vital rural America has a contribution to make in this effort and the responsibility to take on that endeavor.

We offer this compact as a set of principles on which to build the kind of rural America that is needed now and a rural America that is ready to face the challenges to come.
The Rural Compact is concerned with issues of stewardship, health, investments, and education within rural communities--and we encourage folks to take a moment to peruse the Compact and join those who have endorsed this document.

There is much more to explore on the National Rural Assembly site. While learning more about this gathering, we'd also consider taking a look at the 2010 National Rural Youth Assembly and hearing the voices of this next generation.

Related Articles:
The National Rural Youth Assembly

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Song: Fern Jones

So why hasn’t anyone ever heard of Fern Jones? How is her record selling on Ebay for less than $15? How is it possible that rockabilly scholars can tell you every detail about the players on Fern’s album, but not a single thing about her? In what world can a musician be covered by Jimmie Davis, the Blackwood Brothers, Jimmy Swaggart, and even The Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash, and yet not register so much as a footnote in any history of country or gospel music?  How could something so wonderful be so impossibly obscure?
     - liner notes to The Glory Road reissue by Numero Group

In 1958 Fern Jones recorded her only proper album, Singing A Happy Song, with an elite group of Nashville studio musicians who had just put to tape a session with Elvis Presley. It's hard to imagine without listening: how her music makes that jaw-dropping bridge between the swagger of Presley and convictions of an evangelical life. Here's Steve Klinge writing in the 2009 Oxford American Annual Southern Music Issue on Fern Jones:
And her talent was prodigious: She had a voice built to reach three thousand people in a hot tent, to command attention and to attest with conviction; powerful, swinging, and rocking. It's the rocking that surprises now, half a century after her album came out. She's a rockabilly Patsy Cline, a gospel Wanda Jackson, a female Elvis Presley, although she was about a decade older than each of them, and honed her style before they popularized theirs. Neither an influence nor a descendant, she's a forgotten peer.

Fern and Ray Jones, with their two children, spent the '40s and '50s traveling the Deep South as evangelists, settling down occasionally to pioneer new church communities, often hosting religious radio shows. Ray would preach to the crowd, then sing with Fern, accom­panying her on rhythm guitar and high-lonesome backing vocals, usually joined by pickup bands with pedal-steel, slap bass, sometimes horns. Fern was the attractive honky-tonk angel with the earthy voice of a sinner saved: hard, loud, gritty, sexy. A voice made for tents, not churches—at least not white ones. According to their daughter, Anita Faye Garner, who grew up singing alongside her parents, Ray would introduce Fern by saying, "This is my angel with a golden voice, and she was sent by God to sing this way."
Anita Faye Garner edits The Glory Road site to honor her mother's work and spread the message--it's an excellent introduction, complete with a great deal of contextual information and links. More information on the exhaustively-researched Numero Group reissue of Mrs. Jones's work can be found here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Art & Identity in a Not-So-Rural Corner of Arkansas

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Contributing Editor

Last week, the New York Times published an article entitled "A Billionaire's Eye for Art Shapes Her Singular Museum." The story is that of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its benefactor Alice Walton. Two things struck me as I read the NYT piece. First, "I can't wait for this place to open; I've got to see that Andy Warhol screen print of Dolly Parton," and shortly thereafter, "Bentonville, rural hamlet, really?" This created a desire in me to deconstruct the article as much for myself as for others. What will it really mean for Northwest Arkansas, the broader area in which Walton is king, or in this case, queen, and what is the broader context socially and culturally?

As one good friend related to me earlier this week, “anyone who has sat in Bentonville traffic for 45 minutes trying to drive 2.5 miles like I did last Wednesday would argue that it is far from a rural hamlet.” In fact, Bentonville is, indeed, far from that. While 2010 census lists the official population as 35,301, it is in fact part of the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area with a population exceeding 465,000 people, and those figures do not take into account the number of Wal Mart executives and other business people that fly in and out of the Alice Walton Terminal at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport built to accommodate them there in Bentonville. These folks live in Bentonville on a temporary basis, and it also excludes the many employees at the headquarters for America’s Largest Retailer that live in the surrounding towns in Northwest Arkansas, commonly referred to as NWA.

In that region, there is the largest university in the state (The University of Arkansas, home of the Razorbacks), the international headquarters for Wal-Mart, Tyson, and of the trucking magnate J. B. Hunt. In addition, there are several museums and one spectacular venue, The Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, whose creation was a partnership of public and private interests, but was funded in large part by the Walton Family, hence the name. While the venue offers world-class performances of ballet, theatre, and everything from The Peking Acrobats to The B-52s, many in town saw, and still see, the Center as a gentrification of Dickson Street, Fayetteville’s historic source for live bar music and entertainment including performances by many local musicians. The reaction by local citizens has been a “Keep Fayetteville Funky” campaign. Now that we’ve demystified Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas, what of its residents and in particular Ms. Walton of Crystal Bridges?

Arkansas is conscious of itself, perhaps overly conscious. Brooks Blevins, an Arkansas native and resident and the Endowed Associate Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University has penned what I consider the two best books on the social and cultural history of Arkansas, Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image and Arkansas / Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State. The latter, in particular, gets to the heart of the New York Times piece on Walton and Crystal Bridges and its context. Blevins’ premise is that Arkansas and its residents have been caricatured for so long that “defensiveness is part of our cultural inheritance:” 
there seems to be no scientific way to quantify the level of stereotyping to which Arkansas has been subjected in comparison with other states, southern and nonsouthern, but the general consensus around the Natural State is that Arkansas was at some point in the murky past singled out and given a special place in the American consciousness. 
Those stereotypes are predominately negative. “Arkansawyers,” the historic term used by natives according to Blevins, are often seen as isolated, poor, and primitive and the image of Arkansas as portrayed in the media and absorbed in public consciousness is one of “violence, ignorance, shiftlessness, laziness, with generous doses of racism, moonshining, clannishness, inbreeding, barefootedness, floppyhatedness, and general cussedness.” Blevins points to a revelation saying that “developmental psychologists refer to this experience as the ‘yee-haw’ moment—the level of consciousness one must achieve to understand one should be offended by the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ even though one may not be." There are different reactions to such characterizations and, in large part, according to Blevins, they are based on socioeconomic status. The concept of rising above Arkansas’s image is engrained in many. It sounds humorous at first, but not only does this phenomenon ring true to the culture of the state, and I think many other rural states and communities, as a whole it is also evident in the singular case of Walton and her art museum. Blevins writes:
They have represented the forces of “progress” in Arkansas, this least aristocratic commonwealth of the Old South, a land of mudsills not masters, none of us needs scale too many branches of the family tree to find bare plainness, and those who’ve fought tooth and nail to trade rickets for Rotary have been acutely sensitive to this historic progression. Motivated by their own progressive impulses and perhaps by the hayseeds too recently combed from their hair, they have rejected both the romantic’s embrace of the Arkansawyer’s eccentricity and cussed traditionalism and the outsider’s reductionist tendencies to identify all people of Arkansawyer.
In Arkansas, it doesn’t get any more aristocratic than the Walton Family.

What must it have been like for Alice Walton, “billionheiress,” to be from Arkansaw? Surely, this consciousness of place has followed her throughout her life. While I have no background in big business, indeed, my pursuits could probably best be described as the antithesis of big business, I can sympathize with wanting to reshape the image of our native state, and I can certainly understand why it would be important for Ms. Walton to extend herself through philanthropic efforts to counteract the view, held by many, that the company that has provided the funds for her giving destroys community business, mistreats its employees, is discriminatory, and harmful to rural life and culture. 

 2011 Walmart Shareholders Meeting at the Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville, Arkansas

In addition, the over 1 billion dollars that Walton and the family’s foundation have pumped into this project, not including the land on which it sits offers a considerable tax write-off for the family fortune estimated by Fortune magazine to be some 90 billion dollars in 2004. According to ARTINFO, in their in-depth discussion of recent coverage of Crystal Bridges, there was tax legislation created to specifically benefit the Waltons and their significant contributions to Crystal Bridges:
In fact, the law in question, Arkansas Act 1865, very, very clearly is meant to exempt Walton's museum specifically: It provides, and we quote, "Sales tax exemption for purchases by a 'Qualified Museum' for construction, repair, expansion, or operation," with "Qualified Museum" defined as an institution with "a collection with a value greater than $100,000,000 in an Arkansas facility prior to January 1, 2013." 
The Walton Family has a long history of “investing” in cultural initiatives, almost exclusively those considered to be high art, around the country and in Arkansas. Like most things in the Natural State, I’m sure the motivations for these initiatives are complex. Is the museum simply a Walton showpiece, an overcompensation for the “bare plainness” of their roots as Blevins called it, a tax dodging scheme, and/or a genuine love of art and community? The opinions of the residents from NWA about Crystal Bridges are mostly positive. While some doubt the lofty goal described by Walton in the New York Times piece of making Crystal Bridges and “international destination for art lovers,” many emphasize the educational benefit to the region and the spacious grounds and trails on the museum’s site. 

Ellen Compton, whose family owned the land where Crystal Bridges now sits, before the Waltons purchased it from her father after a newspaper article had recounted the discovery of a “satanic altar” on the grounds and a follow-up visit by an anthropologist brought it notoriety, wrote.
Everyone I know who lives in Bentonville is more than enthusiastic about Crystal Bridges.  It is a huge topic and the opening is eagerly anticipated.  Also an everyday question is - how much of it will be ready by the opening?  But they seem to have faith. It is going to be Great and Good.
However, at least one small group questions the intent of Walton and Crystal Bridges. In response to my query, Fayetteville resident, David Orr wrote:
I see this as a repeat of the growth of Texas art museums in the 20th century. When Texans struck oil they built their mansions and bought their luxury cars and built large cities. At some point the millionaires decided they needed fine art museums, too. I believe it is rooted in feelings of inferiority, but it's their way of telling the world that ‘we got culture, too!’
But I find it almost absurd how much they're dumping on this vanity project. It is an overwhelming anachronism, a billionaire's personal art collection in a gigantic building, worthy of the world's largest big-box retailer, plopped down in a remote corner of one of the nation's chronically poorest states. If she really wanted to do something with her billions for her community--the broader community, outside the Wal-Mart home office parking lot--she could have invested in art programs in schools, or build up the art department at UA. Do things that are appropriate to the setting.
Of course there is no way to know, why this? Why there? Why on this grand scale? The museum is set to open in November this year. A quick browse of the museum’s permanent collection pieces offers a peek into the curatorial process of collecting and displaying Walton’s vision of American Art, and, at least to me, surprisingly and pleasantly, it consists of many pieces that are seemingly rural or at least depict rural life.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our New Mission Statement

The Innocent Eye Test; Mark Tansey

With the molting forms of Donald Culross Peattie's cicadas and Charley Patton's bo weavils still on our mind, I would like to share today the new mission statement for The Art of the Rural. This statement is the centerpiece for a series of other new developments that we're looking to announce this summer. 
The greatest joy in editing The Art of the Rural over the last eighteen months has been the conversations and connections I have enjoyed with our readers and contributors. In keeping with the "open canon" model proposed recently, I'd like to offer this mission statement--and I would greatly value any thoughts folks might have. As it stands, I view this new articulation of our mission as a direct result of such feedback. Please feel free to offer your thoughts on our Facebook page or at artoftherural at .

Thanks again for reading and contributing to The Art of the Rural,
Matthew Fluharty
The Art Of The Rural is a non-profit organization working to gather a variety of perspectives on the state of rural arts and culture in American life.

A two-fold mission guides The Art of the Rural. While our website and associated social media components offer readers multiple outlets and platforms through which to learn more about the contemporary dynamics of rural arts and culture, The Art of the Rural seeks to use this technology to create with its readers and advisors an "open canon" of the rural arts. Such an interdisciplinary "open canon," documented across the site and its Rural Arts Links, will serve as an educational and inspirational tool for artists, organizations and readers from both rural and urban backgrounds.

The Art of the Rural seeks to present rural arts and folkways while also considering contemporary responses to rural culture. Rural America stands at the intersection of traditional and modern forms of expression, and we are committed to documenting art that works through this unique and complicated inheritance.

The Art of the Rural recognizes that "rural arts and culture" is not solely composed by folks living in a place census officials deem "non-metropolitan." As many of our organization's editors and collaborators are part of the nation's "rural diaspora," we understand that a great deal of both the art and commentary surrounding rural issues emanates beyond its geography.

The staff of The Art of The Rural is also largely comprised of this next generation of Rural Americans. Thus, we passionately seek to document the voices and viewpoints of its younger citizens: those who have stayed, those who have left, and those who are planning to return.

To those ends, our explorations will consider how these arts, and these attitudes toward culture and community, manifest themselves within the urban areas of this country. The Art Of The Rural aims to present the ways in which the rural, far from any romantic or pastoral notions of a separate and idyllic space, is deeply connected with the daily lives of all Americans.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges : A Primer

Later this week we will feature Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster's commentary on The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a new complex scheduled to open this November in Bentonville, Arkansas. The site, of course, is no coincidence, as the force behind Crystal Bridges is none other than Alice Walton: a Walmart heiress whose assets are now valued at over $23 billion dollars. While Rachel Reynolds Luster, an Arkansas native, will offer her perspective on Crystal Bridges and its place within the region, today I will present a few contextual links. As both its supporters and detractors agree, Crystal Bridges will reshape the conversation within American museum culture and within the American arts as a whole--indeed, Ms. Walton's high-profile acquisitions have been causing waves for years. 

I would first recommend Carol Vogel's recent New York Times article, "A Billionaire’s Eye for Art Shapes Her Singular Museum," as it contains an interview with Ms. Walton. (The New Yorker also has a recent feature, accessible to subscribers) Here are the opening paragraphs:
The era of the world-class museum built by a single philanthropist in the tradition of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Pierpont Morgan Jr. and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney may seem to have passed, but Alice L. Walton is bringing it back. 

Yet her mission is unlike those of her predecessors, or of more recent art patrons like Ronald S. Lauder and his Neue Galerie. They set out to put great works on display in cultural capitals like New York and Boston. Instead, Ms. Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — the first major institution in 50 years dedicated to the vast spectrum of American art, to be housed in a building more than twice the size of the current Whitney Museum of American Art — seeks to bring high art to middle America here in this town of 35,000 that is best known as the home of Wal-Mart.
Ms. Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart’s founder, Sam Walton, has worked on the museum for nearly a decade, but has said little about it in public until now. In a recent interview at Town Branch, her family home here, she said she wanted to turn Bentonville into an international destination for art lovers when the museum opens on Nov. 11. At the moment the most significant nearby cultural attractions are two hours away: a museum of Western and American Indian art in Tulsa, Okla., and, in the other direction, the country-music magnet of Branson, Mo.
Especially after yesterday's commentary of the Kansas Arts Veto, a number of loaded cultural markers dot the landscape of these first few paragraphs: world-class, high-art, middle-America, cultural attractions. With all of these notions staked to the presumably small "town" of Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Bridges simultaneously takes advantage of rural-urban and high-low culture binaries just as it works to refute them. And this is not to mention the regional dynamic itself, of Arkansas and the Ozarks within the broader American consciousness--a factor Rachel will speak to in her commentary. 

Lisa Pruitt of Legal Ruralism has addressed the question of Bentonville, and its rural "heartland" status, on two recent occasions. Her critique of a Los Angeles Times piece last month zeroes in on how journalists are reading, or misreading, the rural component to this story: 
But what really caught my attention was the lede's use of the word "rural":
It makes for a good story, but the munificent $800-million gift from the family that owns Wal-Mart, meant to endow programs and operations at Alice Walton's under-construction art museum in rural Arkansas, is not the largest such gift ever made to a U.S. art museum.
It seems to me that the writer uses the adjective "rural" here to diminish the place--just as the story also puts the museum endeavor in perspective (the largest endowment, the journalist informs us, was from J. Paul Getty to the Los Angeles art museum that bears his name because, adjusted for inflation, that gift would be three times the Walton gift to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Otherwise, why use such a geographical descriptor at all? Perhaps to distance and distinguish the place from uber-urban LA?
The commentary in Legal Ruralism adds a finishing touch to this excellent ARTINFO critique by Ben Davis. He refers to both the New Yorker and the NYT piece as "object lessons in embedded biography [that sacrifice] critical conscience for access to one of the world's richest women." Mr. Davis places the news of Crystal Bridges alongside the inescapable events unfolding in the Supreme Court: the Walmart class-action lawsuit on the behalf of 1.5 million women. The dismissal of this case, just as Crystal Bridges is receiving a new wave of media attention, links the art itself to the mode in which its necessary capital was acquired. In addition, this news complicates these rural-urban, high-low binaries (even if they are false binaries):
The tale being told here is that of an outsider from Arkansas who somehow has won over the art establishment (could it be through the loads and loads of cash she has lavished on art-buying?), but who still faces discrimination from snobs who just don't believe there can be a great art institution in what Walton calls "heartland America." As she told the Times about her dealings with the East Coast establishment, "A lot of people there don't really know this part of the world, really don't know the people here and the desire and the need for art." Touching on the uproar that greeted Walton when she bought Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits" from the New York Public Library — an act that caused critics to cry that the Big Apple was being robbed of its patrimony — Crystal Bridges director Dan Bacigalupi tells the New Yorker's Mead, "You could extend that argument, and say no works of art belong in Arkansas, and that is an absurd thing to say." (Tony art types, meanwhile, may really not be happy in Bentonville, Mead suggests — the town currently only "offers the kind of hospitality-chain establishments guaranteed to dismay bicoastal types." Those snobby bicoastal types.) 

The fact that the profile dwells on these issues seems to be a way to deflect the more meaningful controversies that have circled around Walton's art museum. There may indeed have been some snobbery in some of the ruckus about the Durand being spirited away from New York. But the most sophisticated critique, that of Rebecca Solnit in TomDispatch, was really more about how the proto-conservationist and pro-labor values that formed the background for the painting of "Kindred Spirits" were fundamentally out of step with the values represented by Walmart: ugly sprawl and poverty wages. And that critique is mentioned in the New Yorker, but fundamentally left unaddressed. 
At the risk of merely excerpting Mr. Davis's entire editorial, let me simply recommend that folks make time to consider his points, as he continues from here to discuss the collection itself (which is weak on more contemporary American work) and the Crystal Bridges' alledged manipulation of state government.

For further reading, consider Lee Rosenbaum's article "The Walton Effect: Art World is Roiled by Wal-Mart Heiress," Though the piece was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, it captures the early narrative of how Alice Walton was perceived by some as a "hovering culture vulture." Ms. Rosenbaum writes the influential CultureGrrl blog at ArtsJournal (highly recommended), and this 2009 article will also provide some context on the controversies surrounding the building of Crystal Bridges.

Indeed, Ms. Rosenbaum published her critique of the New Yorker piece yesterday, and her penetrating assessment of Carol Vogel's New York Times article can be read here as well. Beyond the other other issues tied up in Crystal Bridges, Ms. Rosenbaum suggests that the kind of rhetorical strategies which made Walmart such a profitable force may not hold similar sway with arts audiences:
As Vogel noted (and as I was also told by the museum's curators), it wasn't until 2005 that Alice began collecting with the museum in mind. Her holdings before that were, for the most part, of less importance, as I was informed during my visit.

That recent conversion to serious collecting is part of what makes the first paragraph of Vogel's article so eyebrow-raising: The other great museum founders whom she placed in the same league with Walton had put the horse before the cart: They were already voracious acquirers of great things before they envisioned creating a facility to institutionalize their collecting achievements and share them with the public.

Crystal Bridges will rise or fall on its collection. No amount of grandiose architecture and daring feats of engineering (for both the museum facility and the landscape) can trump the as-yet-unknown depth, breadth and quality of the collection.

 Kindred Spirits; Asher B. Durand

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto

Kansas Governor Brownback signing the 2012 state budget; John Hanna

As many of our readers have heard, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback used the power of his line-item veto to erase funding for the Kansas Arts Commission from the 2012 state budget, a move that effectively shut down the organization and fired its staff. By deleting this state-sponsored entity, Governor Brownback also shut the door on matching funds The National Endowment for the Arts would have granted to the Kansas Arts Commission. 

Today we'd like to offer some viewpoints and commentary on this issue and its devastating repercussions for rural communities. We'll begin with this recent NPR report by Elizabeth Blair, aired on Morning Edition last week. Ms. Blair's piece is an excellent introduction to this debate, and to the contrary opinions by some in the arts community that suggest private funding would be a more effective and more liberating avenue. Below is an excerpt:
Private dollars have been really good for the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy where Shannon Reilly is artistic director. The company is celebrating its 75th year. "Through most of that history we've been funded solely through ticket revenue, donors and corporate support," Reilly says.
Reilly says for the most part, they have avoided government grants and that has worked to their advantage. "More and more I've seen that arts organizations ... receiving tax dollars were constantly under fire about their programming and what they were doing," Reilly explains. "I like being responsible to my donors and to the people who were investing in what were doing more than a larger tax base."
While this model is certainly attractive, only at the close of her piece does Ms. Blair allow for this harsh reality: private funding for the arts is likely to replace (or exceed) public funding only in urban areas. We can turn to this Kansas Citizens for the Arts press release for further analysis of the rural dimension to Governor Brownback's arts veto: 
“With a stroke of his pen, the governor cost the State of Kansas $1.2 million,” said Henry Schwaller, chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission. “On July 1, nearly 200 local arts organizations and artists will lose critical support for local arts programs, operational funding and professional development. Without this support, jobs in the arts are at risk, and artists and arts organizations will lose the important infrastructure that has been created largely because of the funding and expertise of the Kansas Arts Commission.
Kansas Arts Commission grants were crucial to many organizations, particularly those in rural areas. If an organization received funds from the Kansas Arts Commission, donors were more likely to contribute to that organization, which leveraged additional dollars for the organization and its community. Because few foundation or corporate donors provide money for operations, the Kansas Arts Commission’s main grant program, Operational Support, was an important way organizations covered general expenses such as rent, utilities and salaries. Many organizations, particularly those in rural or impoverished areas, will find it difficult to replace the lost state and federal funds and will either restrict or eliminate important community programs, cut staff or close their doors.
The horrible irony here is that Governor Brownback's veto will disproportionately affect the life of the rural communities from which he has drawn overwhelming political support. His gambit overlays a national "culture wars" argument on the local arts programming in towns far removed from urban centers.  As The Kansas City Star writes in a recent editorial, Governor Brownback is "hoping to make points with conservatives nationally," while ignoring the local and regional dynamics:
As was the case with Brownback’s misguided attack on public broadcasting, he’s applying a national conservative cause to his home state, without considering the damaging impact on rural areas. Public broadcasting provides one of the only sources of news and information in the sparsely populated western half of the state. Urban areas, the target of this notion, have other options and can replace public funding. The elimination of public arts funding, again, isn’t likely to hurt the Kansas City area as much as Lincoln County, Kan.
As rural developers know well, while technology makes it possible to create new business in the high plains, new business will consider quality of life as much, perhaps more, than tax advantages. Brownback has handed surrounding states an effective tool to beat Kansas communities looking to attract doctors and needed professionals.
In the space of this site, we've tried to document and also to complicate the notion of "the rural arts," but Governor Brownback's arts veto sets a giant and unmistakable corrective in the midst of this project. While we can turn to The Daily Yonder and The Rural Blog for their excellent and consistent coverage toward defining what's at stake in the organizing "rural" moniker, there's another dimension to the other half, the "arts" definition, that we at The Art of the Rural have been perhaps slow to cover--and it lurks beneath the articles excerpted above.

This would be the irreducible political element, voluntary or not, that always coheres around the reception of the rural arts. What we find here is an amalgamation of regional assumptions, as well as preconceived notions about the "place" of the arts; in many respects it's a remnant of the politically polarizing climate of post-9/11 America. To return to the dreaded red-state/blue-state mindset (as I intimately learned while living in Boston), a great deal of people from the larger urban and suburban centers of America implicitly view arts-making as a "blue state" activity, complete with its own ideologies and politics.

What the Kansas arts veto makes abundantly clear is that even some public leaders from the interior of this country--despite a wealth of evidence beneath their noses--have refused to challenge this cultural orthodoxy, despite how reductive and just plain-wrong it might be. This is not a Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal argument, but a case of recognizing that the arts are vital to all communities, and that they can speak for a range of viewpoints and cultural histories beyond the boogey-men of Robert Maplethorpe nudes or Chris Ofili elephant dung paintings.

In turn, those of us making art and working to ensure its reception need to continue to stress its "site specific" nature, and we need to welcome work which challenges our own political and cultural orthodoxies. 

In closing, we will offer an excerpt from last weekend's Kansas City Star editorial by Joyce DiDonato, arguably the most acclaimed opera singer in contemporary classical music. Born in Prairie Village, Kansas, Ms. DiDonato has spoken up for her home state in interviews around the world, and in the press following her award of the illustrious Gramophone "Artist of the Year" in 201o. (Her broken-leg performance of The Barber of Seville has become the stuff of opera legend.) 

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Didonato's eloquent response to Governor Brownback's decision:
This is the Sunflower State that I have proudly boasted about across the world, fearlessly defending it even in the face of harsh quizzical looks from the most skeptical of folks (“You live where?”). It’s the state of my first piano recital and choir concert. The home field of my artistic curiosity and education. The homeland that taught me to freely dream big and without limitation; one where the arts were once alive, vibrant and supported.

I’ve welcomed the assumption of being an unsolicited but mightily proud artistic ambassador for Kansas to the great cities of the world. Now, for the first time, I feel shame. Eliminating a state arts commission is an ignorant, short-sighted, fearful and unspeakably damaging act to the spirit and soul of this great state.

I’m not a politician or historian. I’m a humble opera singer, a home-grown product of an agricultural state that used to value the arts, like all great societies and cultures of the past. But my anger rivals a good ol’ western Kansas Category 5 tornado’s destructive force when I begin to think of where I’d be without an education fueled by the arts that informed my way of thinking. Or without a community theater, choir or art exhibit that gave me true solace and an emergency exit from some of the great crises in my life. Or without that musical outlet that helped me understand myself and the mystery of life a little better.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Vernacular: Our Blueberries

Thank you so much for card. I hadn't much hope Flora's young man would be leaving: and of course she will not want to go if she has a good place, if he doesn't go. I may get someone else, I hear Mrs. Evan Gertrude wants a place. So sorry you had a headache. We have cool nights but warm, sunshining days. Johanna likes it very much here. I daresay you have blueberries too. Regards to your friends, A. F. 

Some of our blueberries are aburst like grapes: they are so large!
Postmarked August 7, 1912 at 6:30 pm. Addressed to Miss Linda Lenholm, c/o Reverend S. Bergdhal, P.O. Box 54, Republic, Michigan

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Saturday Song: Charley Patton

This week we published two entries from Donald Culross Peattie's Almanac For Moderns that documented the seventeen-year cicada as it emerged from the earth in 1934, in Northern Illinois. A few years earlier, a delta musician sat down to record a song about another agricultural plague.

In 1929, Charley Patton (recording as "The Masked Marvel") entered "Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues" into the American blues canon. While I imagine most folks are already familiar with the legendary, transcendent work of Charley Patton, more information and further links can be found here. Born in 1891, he jolted from the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi to become one of the first celebrities in the era of recorded blues. Like Robert Johnson, his life was tumultous and cut short far too early. 

Here's Stephen Calt writing in the liner notes to the excellent Yazoo records Charley Patton: Founder of the Delta Blues:
Mississippi Bo Weavil was a unique seven bar song that Patton played in 1910, when the bo weavil struck his native Sunflower County. Despite its one chord accompaniment and simple vocal melody consisting of three basic notes, it is an almost inimitable work. Its single line stanzas pair fourteen beat vocal phrases with ten beat bottleneck riffs, usually followed by a measure of tonic chord strumming. The pitch (C3) Patton sounded with a bottleneck immediately after the vocal phrase was one of his favorite devices: he sounds similar high pitches in "A Spoonful Blues" and "When Your Way Gets Dark."

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rural Poetry Series: Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was born into a farming family in County Monaghan, Ireland. He spent the first part of his adult life farming those same fields in the small townland of Inniskeen, an experience which gave rise to the long poem many consider to be his masterpiece, The Great Hunger.  Despite the pastoral fantasies many urban poets projected onto the Irish rural, Kavanagh's poem told the story of the economic, cultural and even sexual poverty of life "beyond the pale." For its frankness, and for the ways in which it threatened the politically-useful images of "the Irish peasant," The Great Hunger--as with James Joyce's Ulysses--was banned in Ireland upon its publication.

In the years following The Great Hunger, Kavanagh continued to present the realities of Irish rural life--but also its communal mysteries. After surviving lung surgery, Kavanagh created a series of lush and circumspect poems that unified rural and urban experience within a timeless and benedictory continuum. (See "Canal Bank Walk")

Midway through this poetic career, Patrick Kavanagh composed "Epic," a poem that looks back on his rural place, and its local peculiarities, at the moment when the outside world was bracing itself for World War Two. While poets from Ireland, America and beyond cite "Epic" as an influential affirmation of local culture, Paul Muldoon--one of the rural-born Irish poets to inherit Kavanagh's concerns--points us towards considering the complications of assigning one "importance" over another. We find this profound and simultaneously ambiguous poem related to many of the recent articles and conversations we have featured:


I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting 'Damn your soul'
And old McCabe, stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
'Here is the march along these iron stones'.
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Creating An Open Canon Of The Rural Arts

photograph by Carlos A Varela

We plan to soon announce some exciting new additions and changes to the mission and practice of The Art of the Rural, as we reconsider how this site can be a resource for its readers. One of the major components to the work we are looking to accomplish is the creation of what we're calling an "open canon" of the rural arts--a compendium of artists, writers, organizations and media outlets that will be highlighted most prominently in our Rural Arts Links.

The idea of an "open canon" of the rural arts is based on the notion that those of us who want a fuller, more three-dimensional, vision of the scope of the rural arts can work together to craft a resource that can offer both the historical achievements of rural artists as well as the contemporary dynamics of rural art-making. 

We believe that, together, can use a Web 2.0 approach to join in the voices advocating for a new place for the rural arts--and we'd like to invite all of our readers to help participate in this work. 

Over the next few weeks we are looking to update The Rural Arts Links, and we would value any input our readers might be willing to offer. What is missing from this list? What artists, organizations, issues have we failed to include within the Links or within the content of the site itself? We'd love to hear your suggestions and feedback. Please send an email to or reply in the comments section of the Rural Arts Links.

Thanks again for reading The Art of the Rural

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Farmers and Freaks of Greg Brown's Iowa

photograph by Richard Sennott, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Riverside, Iowa, a small town located about twenty minutes south of Iowa City. My experiences in Riverside will undoubtedly lead to a few articles here and a few shared links on our Facebook page; though I've spent most of my life in the cities and small towns of the Midwest, my time in rural southeastern Iowa clarified how the organizational term "The Midwest" simply doesn't do justice to the varied cultures and approaches to place within these states.

One of the pleasures of my time in Iowa was having the chance to read The Des Moines Register, and the writing of Kyle Munson, a columnist who covers Iowa arts and culture with both clarity and personality. Mr. Munson is from Silver City (a proud fifth-generation Iowan); his columns draw from his family connections across the state and from his years as a music reviewer and a freelance feature writer. His goal is to report from as many communities as possible in the state, a mission that can be followed via the Register's interactive map.

Sunday morning I settled in with the physical copy of the Des Moines Register and found Mr. Munson's latest work, a review of the album release party for Greg Brown's Freak Flag:
Folk singer Brown, 61, has served as the unofficial voice of Iowa for decades. Dropping the words "rumbling" and "baritone" into the same sentence is almost a requirement when describing the powerful growl with which he has dispensed love songs as well as odes to the prairie. Yet Thursday night in Iowa City, he also showcased a playful falsetto during his party for "Freak Flag" at the Mill, the restaurant/bar that is one of his favorite old haunts.
At first glance, isn't Brown singing about freaks sort of like Lady Gaga singing about canning tomatoes?
Hardly. "Freak Flag," if anything, brings his career into sharper focus - putting a finer point on the rural hippie persona he has crafted through his rich, celebrated song catalog. It's almost a bookend to the more straightforward nostalgia of the title track to his album "The Iowa Waltz" 30 years ago (not performed Thursday). Back then he paid tribute to his "home in the midst of the corn" - more of an anthem for farmers.
Folks unfamiliar with Greg Brown's music may already know his sensibility, as he was the musical director A Prairie Home Companion for a number of years and the co-founder of the Red House roots record label. As Mr. Munson writes, "Iowa's recent history almost [could] be charted" across the songs in his recent set. Below I'll share a few of the tracks Mr. Munson suggests:

Related Articles:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: Cicada Song

June Twelfth

Nothing has done me more good than to hear that the cicadas have all got a plague. The newspapers are carrying stories about it. A blue-green mold which is always more or less present on the summer cicada has attacked the seventeen-year variety with terrific vehemence, and mycologists and entomologists alike are excited about it. Apparently the fungus does not kill more than a fraction of the dog-day cicadas, who have probably built up a certain resistance to it. The periodical cicadas, emerging in tremendous numbers, comparable to overcrowding in our city slums, are seized upon by the disease and their vitals swiftly eaten out. Spores for spreading the malady push out from the corpses and sow the air with death to others.

So, though the cicadas emerge by the billions of billions in fourteen different states, a check upon them is always waiting. I have found several cicadas being carried off by predatory wasps, and the woods about the house are suddenly alive with woodpeckers, chewinks, orioles, flickers, sparrows, grackles and robins, fattening on the winged harvest.

June Thirteenth

There is no diminution yet in the uproar, but my lightened heart gives me grace to take some interest in the biology of the creatures. The period of seventeen years is varied, in the southern states, to thirteen years, and the recurrence of the adults is further made irregular by the fact that there are more than a score of broods in different parts of the country, each having its own years for the rhythmic emergence, or, as we might say, starting off on a different beat, though all keeping the same rhythm. In some areas several broods overlap, so that the cicada years occur oftener than every seventeen years. Some of the broods occupy immense areas, but others are more restricted and feeble.

No other insect in the world has such a long life as this, nor a life history so disproportionate. To be sure, the summer cicada spends a year underground and another of life above it, but as there are two broods, we always have the common cicada with us. But the periodical cicada spends seventeen years as grub, and sometimes no better than seventeen days as a free creature of the sunlight and air. 

The fate of the insect seems miserable enough to us,  but in fact the strange life history is distinctly advantageous to the creature itself. Its seventeen years underground do not represent prison to the cicada, but comfort and safety, such as a mole or an earthworm knows. It is only when this animal, which we must regard as a naturally subterranean species, takes the dangerous step of emerging into the air that it has any reason to sorrow. For, as so often happens, the moment of sexual maturity is also the moment of predestined death. Nature flings the sexes at each other and then, having no more use of them, she draws her sword and slays them.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

From Extraction to Preservation in Colorado

This morning on NPR's Neda Ulaby submitted a report from Ignacio, Colorado, the site of the recently-completed Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum--a $38 million dollar building that preserves Ute history (along with many objects repatriated from the Smithsonian) and also re-presents contemporary Ute culture to the home community and to the regions' tourists. Here's a concise summary of the Cultural Center and Museum's many offerings, excerpted from their press release:
The new 52,000-square-foot facility is a stunning addition to the architectural landscape in southwest Colorado. As the only tribally-owned cultural center in Colorado, the museum has been developed to conserve and promote the history and culture of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and other Native Americans so that the Tribe’s young people and the community will always be known and will remember what it means to be Southern Ute.

The state-of-the-art museum will house the Tribe’s existing collection of more than 1,500 artifacts and provide space as the collection grows. It also will include a multi-media room, permanent and temporary exhibit rooms, arts and crafts classrooms, and gathering spaces for Tribal and community functions.
What's striking about Ms. Ulaby's short piece, especially in relation to the recent March on Blair Mountain, is the source of the Ute's newfound wealth:
In the late 19th century, the U.S. government divided the Ute people into three different tribes, sending them north or west and letting some stay where they were.

"We remained here," explains museum board Chairman Robert Burch, who grew up on a Ute reservation near Colorado's border with New Mexico. "Little did they know we were sitting on oil — natural gas. And once we started getting it out of the ground [and] producing it, we became a wealthy tribe."
So while the Southern Utes have fewer than 1,500 members, the tribe is worth billions — it's literally a case study in expert resource management.
While Ms. Ulaby was certainly working within a very tight word count for her Morning Edition piece, there seems to be a larger story, or at least a productive series of conversations, that might emerge from the news of this gorgeous new facility. Given the increasing (and long-overdue) media attention paid to natural gas drilling, we have here not only a "case study in expert resource management" but a workable example of how the cash windfall from a messy and environmentally-damaging extractive industry has been "managed" in such a way as to provide something sustainable long after the money and the jobs from natural gas drilling have left the region. Looking to the future, many of our rural communities which are anticipating the arrival of the drills and rigs may want to take notice of this model.

Yet I am sure that the comments section for Ms. Ulaby's piece will also become populated with listeners curious about the "fracking" backstory. In fact, Jim Moscou contributed a piece for Newsweek in 2008 that dealt with a toxic spill at a Southern Ute natural gas drilling operation that seriously endangered one worker and an Emergency Room nurse (contaminated  in the ER with the fracturing chemicals). As Mr. Moscou writes in the conclusion, regulators are faced with many challenges, as the wells' location on Native lands put "federal, state and local oversight further out of reach."

Undoubtedly, a trip to the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum site will insure that today's story is a positive one.  Yet, we also find a narrative of extraction--and, further back, colonization itself--that points to a far more complex story that reporters, artists, and community members will tell and retell in the years ahead.

Related Articles:
Two Documentary We Should Consider...[Gasland]
40 Years in the West: High Country News

Friday, June 10, 2011

The White House Rural Council

Yesterday, by Executive Order, President Barack Obama announced the formation of the White House Rural Council, a cabinet-level group charged with assessing both the challenges and the unique assets inherent in Rural America. This is a historic announcement, the first such high-level council with an explicit focus on rural development. Here's an excerpt from the press release:
“Strong rural communities are key to a stronger America,” said President Barack Obama. “That’s why I’ve established the White House Rural Council  to make sure we’re working across government to strengthen rural communities and promote economic growth.” 

The White House Rural Council will coordinate programs across government  to encourage public-private partnerships to promote further economic  prosperity and quality of life in rural communities nationwide. Chaired by  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the Council will be responsible for providing recommendations for investment in rural areas and will coordinate Federal engagement with a variety of rural stakeholders, including agricultural organizations, small businesses, and state, local, and tribal governments.

“Rural America makes significant contributions to the security, prosperity, and economic strength of our country,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The Rural Council announced by President Obama shows his continued focus on promoting economic opportunity, creating jobs, and enhancing the quality of life for those who live in rural America. Together with the rest of the Obama administration, USDA has worked to support families and businesses in rural communities so that their success will pay dividends for all Americans.”
Next week we'll offer more of our perspective on this news, but until then, the full detailed press release can be viewed here. While, of course, there are political benefits to such a council's formation, this news is promising--and we will be following the arts and culture dynamic to this Council as the story develops. We're curious how a representative from the National Endowment for the Arts might contribute to this discussion. 

Last year, on the eve of the midterm elections, I contributed this reflection on Candidate Barack Obama's unannounced campaign stop in my hometown of Smithfield, Ohio--days before the 2008 vote. This week, his White House Rural Council is charged with addressing the needs, and the very real frustrations, of these same folks he met for a few brief moments: 

Two Years Later in One Rural  Town

A little over two years ago, Senator Barack Obama campaigned through the Ohio Valley on the eve of the presidential election.  En route from one rally to another, his tour bus passed through my hometown of Smithfield, Ohio. In an unplanned move, the candidate stopped for a brief moment to greet folks who had gathered to cheer along the motorcade. I'm grateful that someone with a digital camera captured this moment for posterity; as the candidate emerges from the long-awaited bus, he seems almost to be returning from a moment of goodwill that we have since misplaced.

When Obama pulled out of Smithfield, Ohio, what he left was a town still resilient in the face of many of the same issues that haunt all of rural America. The main street our future President stood upon was shadow of its former glory--abandoned businesses, dilapidated houses, the high school long gone--but also a metaphor for a state-of-the-nation we sought to amend. As the motorcade snaked its way along the ridge leading out of town, it passed farms owned and preserved with great difficulty by generations of families; among the cattle and crops, as with my family's farm, sat the giant strip pits--old enough to be unreclaimed--standing for another metaphor we invested in a candidate's care.

I wonder how the folks in the video would react if the President's bus stopped again, unannounced, in Smithfield. What would they discuss, what tone would this discussion take?  I ponder this as the video plays again, as the images begin to move like ghosts across the computer screen--a moment lost, a memory consigned to the past.

Aside from our own party preferences, there's no denying that a sense of decorum has vacated our political discourse; while this is no doubt a reflection of our national recession--already mature in November 2008--it is also a comment on our willingness to think, with generosity and civility, beyond ourselves and beyond our own perspectives. Now, more than ever, we need artists to challenge our neighbors' (and our own) frustrated myopia.