Thursday, August 30, 2012

Introducing The Rural Arts & Culture Working Group

Working on next steps; all photos by Shawn Poynter

By Matthew Fluharty, Director of Art of the Rural

Over the next few weeks Art of the Rural will begin to share the stories and perspectives from the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group, a diverse group of artists, practitioners, and advocates that recently gathered for inaugural meetings at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Our time together was made possible by Americans for the Arts, Arts and Democracy, The Bush Foundation, The Center for Rural Strategies, Greenfield Community College, The National Endowment of the Arts, and The New England Foundation for the Arts.

Along with Whitney Kimball Coe of the Center for Rural Strategies and Matthew Glassman of Double Edge Theatre, I had the honor of convening this Group and helping frame and record the initial conversations. Forty folks from across the country came together in response to a call to create and advocate for a new narrative of the rural arts and culture that considers rural-urban connections, cultural and agricultural sustainability, the role of rural youth, racial and ethnic inclusiveness, and the necessity of creating fresh cross-sector collaborations.

We gathered at Double Edge Theatre to start a movement.

Both in its philosophy, and in the site-specific theater work that occurs across its farm, buildings, and fields, we found in Double Edge a profound metaphor for both the urgency and the timelessness of our mission. Led by Artistic Director Stacy Klein, this theatre has embraced its local community and helped transform a town's economy, all the while producing some of the most vital and transcendent productions to be found anywhere in America. It's rare for an artistic project to so consistently achieve such a high, experimental, standard while also maintaining such an commitment to local place.

As a result, our Working Group meetings were inspired, and given structure, by the rhythms of this company. We had a chance to take in a performance of The Odyssey, their annual "summer spectacle," and to witness their farm transformed into a tableux through which an ancient story finds a contemporary voice. On this visionary ground, and with the assistance of a dozen of its actors each day, we found the facilities and creative spirit through which to come together as a peer community and chart the course before us, like Odysseus, that might lead us to port.

David Martinez of the Media Literacy Project, with Kelle Jolly of Carpetbag Theatre, and Rachel Reynolds Luster of AOTR

Cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational, we convened with a shared belief in the power of artmaking to both express and reimagine the cultural life of rural America. As we've all seen art change the lives of individuals and communities, we also feel that it can play a profound role in shaping how rural America is represented in national policy discussions. Artists and cultural practitioners can create powerful narratives and metaphors to a host of policy concerns, from rural broadband to economic development to the need for greater philanthropic investment in rural America.

 Javiera Benavente and Caron Atlas of Arts and Democracy

Though we travelled to Double Edge Theatre from all across the country, and though our own definitions of those central terms -- rural, arts, culture -- varied within our fields and our regions of experience, we discovered a common ground and a shared imperative. We found ways to best understand the cultural moment that surrounds such work in rural (and urban) America, a quality of consciousness best described by Carlos Uriona of Double Edge Theatre as that of Crisis, Danger, and Opportunity.

Art of the Rural is committed to sharing the stories and perspectives that make up such a consciousness, and in coming weeks will begin to feature the voices from this Working Group as well as the voices of those who did not spend those four intense days with us at Double Edge Theatre. Though forty folks gathered for this initial meeting, my colleagues and I recognize that a fully-articulated effort will take far more minds, and far more collaboration. In September we will begin to share more information about the ways that everyone can help to contribute to this work and these conversations.

Nikiko Masumoto, agrarian artist; Rachel Beth Rudi, AOTR contributor

In thinking about what we can craft together, I'll offer this basic assertion of the Group's purpose and its statements of belief:

We gather to develop an organized effort that promotes our shared belief in the transformative power of the arts in rural America.  We hope [as this work begins] to create the basic framework for a movement that spans the country,  that resonates across cultures, disciplines, and experiences and informs policy.

•We believe that rural America is changing. Artists and cultural workers are on the front lines of these new definitions of rural place and identity.
•We believe the arts and culture inform policies across all sectors.
•We believe the arts are a primary vehicle for the advancement of cultural values and rights.
•We believe that storytelling and creativity are essential to the health of a community.
•We believe that arts and culture are central to all forms of sustainability.
•We believe that the efforts of artists and cultural workers can empower youth and expand cross-cultural dialogues.
•We believe artists create powerful narratives that transcend rural-urban and international boundaries.
•We believe real change is cultural.

Jennifer Armstrong, Illinois Council of the Arts; Bonita Rickers, Institute of American Indian Arts; Patrice Walker Powell, National Endowment of the Arts

While the language above formed a foundation for the first scenes of this movement, there are additions, clarifications, and expansions to this mission that emerged during our conversations at Double Edge Theatre. Forthcoming  documents and communication will offer far greater detail of this content.

Thus, I'd like to offer a few additional thoughts -- and to say that the reflections to follow are solely my own. We hope to share many further perspectives on the philosophy and next-steps of a rural arts and culture movement on Art of the Rural in the coming weeks.

• We need to build a broad coalition of folks from the local to national level. We are building this movement not only for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. We are establishing a support system -- from academics to artists to cultural practitioners to arts advocates -- that can offer, for the first time, a collaborative narrative of rural artmaking and its inseparable cultural life. Let's build this now, so that our children don't have to come back in 20 years and try to create this again.

• Let's steward these collaborations toward art, publications, events, etc, that create a body of expression and a store of resources that can provide an organized aesthetic and cultural perspective that has, up to this point, been a challenge to locate and assemble into a coherent narrative.

• With this, let's at last refuse the rural-urban binary. The fate of rural America is the fate of urban America.

• This a moment to also reconsider what "rural" identity means. Can we make space in this definition for the millions of folks within the rural diaspora who live in our cities and suburbs? Might art and culture work serve as the bridge to opening up notions of rural membership to urban audiences?

Carlos Uriona, Double Edge Theatre; Savannah Barrett, arts administrator & AOTR contributor

• For us to understand where we've going as rural people and artists, we must understand where have come from.  We need to grasp our social history -- and to project this history across imposed cultural and ideological boundaries. If we are going to argue for a new place for the rural arts, we must understand, historically, how the rural arts have been situated in this national and international conversation.

• To those ends, universities must be engaged partners in this work. And these institutions need to think more broadly about their responsibility to their regions.

Kirsten Stoltz, M12; Rachel Luster; Scott Walters, Center for Rural Arts Development & Leadership

• We also should scan the folks who normally participate in such rural-themed convenings and collaborations. What occupations and points-of-view are often left out?

• This initial meeting, necessarily so, was focused on the community applications of the arts. How do we integrate the experience of individual artists not working an explicitly "social" vein? How do we integrate art that is abstract and non-representational?

• In a changed moment for arts funding, what is the role of entrepreneurship? 

• If we are building a rural arts and culture movement, this must be a gathering force that is open, inclusive, and dedicated to honest dialogue. Let's create a space where we can speak freely, and where we expect to hear a difference of opinion.

• Many of us have been to meetings and conferences that led to impassioned and creative conversations -- and then, after everyone left, produced nothing concrete or sustainable. This Working Group is founded upon the belief that conversation is not enough. To make change we must make change. 

• And, most importantly, this must be a movement built upon real human relationships. As Kelle Jolly of Carpetbag Theatre said during our gathering, let's go to each others' homes and let's sit at each others' tables.

Please find below more excellent photography by Shawn Poynter, with a full archive of photos from the Working Group gathering here. To read more on further perspectives on this work, please see Mary Annette Pember's piece in The Daily Yonder and Chris Beck's reflections on the USDA Blog. We will be sharing more news and updates on this work soon, with opportunities for conversation and collaboration.

Catharine Jordan of the Bush Foundation, Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth of the Wormfarm Institute, and Matthew Glasman of Double Edge Theatre

Mary Annette Pember speaking during a conversation on rural media

Philip Arnoult of The Center for International Theatre Development facilitating a discussion