Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rebuilding The Front Porch: An Interview With Patrick Overton

Savannah Barrett with Carlos Urlona at the Working Group meetings; Shawn Poynter

[Editor's Note: today we both welcome a new writer to the Art of the Rural staff and begin a new series of articles. We are excited to feature the work of Savannah Barrett, a writer and community arts advocate who has taken lessons learned in urban and international locales and applied them to rural contexts. She's currently completing work on a Masters in Community Arts Management at the University of Oregon. We are proud to count Savannah as our Community Arts Editor.

Her first piece is also the inaugural entry in a series we are calling "The State of the Rural Arts" -- reflections, interviews, features, and online installations that will seek to articulate the historical context surrounding this question while also expanding our common understanding of who, and what, constitutes "the rural arts" in contemporary America. As Savannah mentions below, this investigation springs from the imperatives that emerged from The Rural Arts and Culture Working Group.

By Savannah Barrett, Community Arts Editor

As a native of rural Kentucky, I have been witness to both the blessing of belonging to a country community alongside the entirety of my extended family; and to troubling and significant changes in this community and our distinct cultural traditions. These changes have taken place amidst a mass exodus of industrious young people who have left in search of quality education, employment, and social resources; and in response to a lack of investment in those fundamental needs in their home community. These experiences have led me to pursue a career in the rural community arts field. As a graduate student, I have struggled to piece together the history and dimensions of this domain, and found that history difficult to unravel and my field difficult to locate. There are few signposts in this work, yet I have been fortunate to find “my tribe” and my discourse among members of the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group. It was while there, while we collectively struggled to name our movement and identify our narrative, that I was connected with Patrick Overton.

I had discovered Patrick’s book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America while searching library databases for information related to Robert Gard and to the history of rural arts programs in the Cooperative Extension Service. I knew his work to be concerned with both the dynamic history of rural community arts development and with contemporary rural cultural policy. Patrick Overton is the Director of the Front Porch Institute in Astoria, Oregon, and has pursued community cultural development as practitioner and scholar for 35 years throughout the United States. In 1990, he defended the rural arts when called to Washington D.C. to testify in front of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on the Interior on behalf of continued Federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts. There he conveyed that Rural Genius was one of the most important natural resources in our country, that it is one of our greatest sources of innovation, and that this resource was at risk. Twenty-three years later, I set out to ask Patrick about the current state of the rural arts, about rural genius, and about how those of us who are advocates and practitioners for rural arts and culture should move forward. 

For those interested in building a movement of folks committed to sustaining, honoring, and growing rural arts and culture, we must be cognizant of the significant historical efforts by the rural arts pioneers that have laid our groundwork, or as Patrick refers to it, the Old/New work: the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements; Alfred Arvold, Baker Brownell, Robert Gard and others who pioneered the rural arts programs of the Agriculture and Cooperative Extension; the community cultural development movement; local arts councils; and the practitioners, both in small and large communities, who have advocated for recognition in cultural policy. One of the first things Patrick told me related to the history of the rural community arts movement, and the distinctive differences between this movement and the more popularly understood community arts council movement:
The minute you add rural/small communities to the history of community arts development, you have to push the history of the movement back from the 1950’s to 1826 with the beginning of the Lyceum movement. Now when you look at the community arts movement, you can stop in the 50s, because they really can be understood as two very different movements. A lot of what we call community arts today began as the symphony movement in the middle of the last century and evolved into what we know today as the arts council/local arts agency movement.  But the community it served was usually a large metropolitan areas. When you start talking about rural arts, rural/small community arts development, I go back to the Chautauqua and go all the way back to the Lyceum. I think it is essential because that is a distinction that we have failed to make. They really are distinctly different movements.”
What sets the community arts development movement apart from the Arts Council Movement is the emphasis on self-improvement and self-education.  “The community arts development movement has such a rich tradition and it’s a tradition that is very much about understanding art as a noun (a thing you have or own) and citizens as patrons, but rather understanding art as a verb and citizens as participants. And it’s that element of participating in the arts that really is distinctive difference between the two. Not that you don’t participate in the arts in the fine arts in large metropolitan areas, but there’s a level at which participation in a small community setting has a very different take and feel to it.”
Understanding the history unique to the field of rural arts helps to illuminate the challenges of our contemporary work. Rural Community Arts work, historically and presently, is slow to ripen. While we certainly need more capital and resources in this field, our work also requires human investment. Similar to the argument for slow foods, rural art and culture necessitates patience and planning. Wormfarm Institute farmer and artist Jay Salinas describes this through the use of his word Cultureshed, which he defines as 1. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history. 2. An area nourished by what is cultivated locally. 3. The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.”

If we want our work to sustain, we must listen to our places and to the people that live there and we must be patient with the process as it reveals itself, rather than implementing our individual visions. We must commit to our people and to our places long enough for our project’s ownership to belong to the soil (place) and fertilizer (people) that grew it. We must cultivate. 

Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas of The Wormfarm Institute

The result is authentic, is “of a place” and not “imposed on a place”, and is worth waiting for. Overton addressed the importance of investment in place in our conversation:
If you don’t do the relationship building, in particular in the most rural and small communities, if you don’t show them that you care for them as people, then it doesn’t matter what you do for them or what you offer them. Or what you get them to do, it will not be valued if it’s not part of a relationship.”
“I believe community arts development and the arts in general begin with the individual. I believe that language and communication are the way individuals really do come into existence, it’s the way we say “I am.” Sometimes very special things happen and when say I am by expressing our voice, we end up inviting a relationship with somebody else who is a “you are”, and the “I am” and the “you are” become a “we”. To me that is really is the nexus of community. That’s the invitation.” 
“My work in rural and small communities was never about the arts, it was about the invitation. People will do what they are capable of doing if they are invited and know that they have access to it. Community arts development is about access and access to education.

At this point in the conversation, we turned our attention to broad based issues that are inhibiting the rural community arts’ growth as a movement and our development as a field. I and many of my rural peers are concerned with the lack of resource investment in rural communities. As Art of the Rural director Matthew Fluharty recently explained, “While Rural America stands as roughly 20% of the population, and 80% of its land mass, these artists are often isolated both from each other and from the possibility of creating a larger narrative.  As the moral failure of American philanthropy’s 1% investment in rural America suggests, too often a seat at the table for “the rural” has been withheld” (Fluharty, 2012).  Overton echoes this explanation:
Public policy has utterly failed to recognize the essential contribution rural and small communities make…I think a lot of people who talk about rural don’t know what they’re talking about because they’ve never been there, they’ve never done it. They talk about rural as though it is a particular place, and though we know it is geographically central in our life; it’s really not about geography for us, it’s about everything that’s connected to it.”
While those of us who identify as rural are certainly dismayed at the underinvestment in rural America, we are also alarmed by the ever growing trend of our natural resource (our best and brightest young minds) leaving their home communities. They are the Rural Diaspora, born into rural areas yet relocated to more populated areas in search of educational and professional opportunity. In universities and professions across the world, we represent the rural genius’ disbursement to the cities. Yet, many of us remain tethered to our homeplaces and our rural birthright, despite our current address. Many of us do not feel it possible to live in the rural full-time and know that going home for good is complicated. Nevertheless, we are deeply committed to rural communities, particularly in regards to celebrating our cultural distinctions. Acknowledging this duality, how can we mobilize the Rural Diaspora to support a rural arts and culture movement, and to entice some of our Rural Genius back into rural communities?
I’ve seen communities lose their identity because they’ve lost their major business, and I’ve seen populations leave. And I’ve seen the out-migration of people like you in rural communities who take it with them but live with a longing that people like you have because of the significance of that homeplace to you, I’ve watched that out-migration and the impact it has on those communities.”
“Rural small communities are the cultural underpinnings of what we are as a nation, those cultural underpinnings are crumbling. Our nation is at risk because of it.”
“The biggest need that we have is the ability to get together. I believe that ironically those communities that were founded by pioneering efforts that started this country are going to be the ones that keep it together.”
Jetsonorama participating in The Painted Desert Project; National Geographic, Aaron Lavinsky

Despite the challenges facing rural America, I feel a genuine excitement for the people, the work, and the coalitions I’ve engaged with in the past year. Constructive and critical conversations are taking place. While they are not yet ubiquitous, there are myriad opportunities for engagement in rural community arts programs across America. Organizations and individuals are leading the way in challenging the narrative of rural culture and its intrinsic value to our national cultural fabric: The field is being written about, researched, and published on more frequently; academic programs are training students to address the needs of rural communities; and some policy and funding organizations are stepping up to the plate to acknowledge rural arts and cultural work not only for the ways in which it provides access to the arts, but for the ways in which it enhances community pride and vibrancy and improves the standard of living for rural residents.

I asked Patrick to specifically comment on his perception of the state of the Rural Arts today:
I am seeing something that I find very exciting. First, rural arts are a topic of conversation again... Now, I am hearing about and talking to younger people, like you, who are driven by the passion of the work and the important contribution it makes. The concern that I have is much of what I have been reading seems to ignore the vast, rich history of the work and the writing that has been done so many years before all of us started this contemporary expression of the rural/community arts development work. There is so much to learn from the pioneers who have gone before us – I worry about a cycle that seems to occur every twenty years with exciting, gifted, impassioned young people discovering rural/small community arts development and proceeded as if it is a new field.

It is possible we may be entering the most important phase of our history doing this work. Why? Because people are beginning to understand that if something doesn’t change, we are in deep, deep trouble in this country. And I believe rural/small communities are the most critical cultural underpinnings that keep this culture from imploding on itself. There is a need, a desire, an interest in finding alternative – constructive/creative alternatives to the social disintegration that has diseased our entire country. The arts are (and always have been) the way to authentic community expression.

This may be our time. And people like you may well be the messengers who are going to be able to tell this story and this potential and do so in a way that recognizes that the story is a long story and the contribution this story identifies is great.”
I asked Patrick to respond to thirteen additional questions regarding the “State of the Rural Arts Today.” His responses encouraged my own professional development, enlivened the tired rhetoric about rural place, and fully expressed the need to engage with and celebrate rural arts and culture as it is happening on front porches and back roads across this country. To read more about my conversation with Patrick Overton, download the PDF of our interview.

[Author’s Note: All direct quotes attributed to Patrick Overton are taken from a transcribed interview conversation between Patrick Overton and Savannah Barrett that took place on October 16, 2012. For questions, please contact the author. ©Savannah Barrett, 2012.]