Rural America’s Art of Connection: Building Community through Exchange
This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.
Rural America is diverse: Fishing communities cling to bluffs; mountains cradle lightning bugs; cypress trees frame black watered swamps; prairie rattlesnakes watch storms approach a hundred miles away; desert landscapes change overnight. As these landscapes shift and merge along our nation’s rural routes, so too do rural people’s culture, heritage, and identity. The rural arts field is not connected by a monolithic rural culture, but through numerous cultures linked by relationships and exchange.
As a field focused on demographic similarity across great cultural and physiographic difference, rural artists explore their commonalities by exchanging projects, strategies, and challenges. Relationship to place is our tie that binds, so the field is increasingly prioritizing projects that connect people and organizations across distance and divide. These relational projects, conferences, and digital resources use cultural exchange as a vehicle for social transformation by expanding connections between people and places.
This connective work is essential to our shared future, but lacks sustainability because personal/collective transformation is difficult to measure and takes a long time to become visible as systemic change. Some creative projects result in a material artwork, but frequently the most enduring transformation is within and among people. How do you measure the impacts of belonging?
Frequently, metrics are designed to assess presenting organizations and emphasize aesthetics, outreach, and scale from a traditional arts management perspective, which is often urban, professional, and Eurocentric. As Andrea Assaf explains in her Aesthetic Perspectives writing, “Equitable evaluation requires an understanding of projects, artists, creative practices, or cultural traditions within the framework of their own aesthetic value systems.” If an evaluator focuses solely on product when a project’s value is chiefly the process, they are missing the point and potentially jeopardizing project’s capacity to forward connectedness, equity, and transformation.
There is a misconception that organizers doing arts and social change projects don’t value evaluation. Instead, I observe they define success and approach evaluation in ways that aren’t recognized or valued by common evaluation standards. They emphasize participant experience and growth via informal narrative reflection and feedback. Many of us struggle with translating our stories into data that conveys the aesthetic and societal value of our work. While this is true for projects in all demographic and disciplinary categories, it’s doubly significant in rural arts and social change projects which have been disadvantaged by both an insufficient language for describing the work and a massive inequity in philanthropic investment (less than 5% of American philanthropy is invested in rural).
Animating Democracy’s framework, Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change, offers some standards for a field of practice for artists, critics, and funders. This tool is meaningful because it establishes both criteria for excellence in the field of arts and social change, and potential for rural artists to be supported by new funders as a part of an arts and social change portfolio. Of the 11 aesthetic attributes, these five particularly resonated with my work in rural contexts:
Culture is the expression of what a community values. Arts organizing work can uniquely meet people where they are using culturally appropriate methods of engagement. Use of local culture, such as storytelling, dance, or music in environments where people already gather can help participants find the confidence to join in. Local culture is a great equalizer and can make the difference between viewer and participant.
Connection can be a revolutionary act. The constructs of race and class were designed to keep groups of people separated for the benefit of inequitable systems that privilege and profit a few. Exploring varied stories of community and belonging can expand worldviews, cultivate neighborliness, and change how a community’s story is told. Next generation leaders will choose communities that are vibrant with a variety of cultural experiences. Rural communities are affordable and have abundant amenities, but our future depends on leveraging existing assets while embracing diversity.
Most people, including evaluators, perceive the world from their own experiences. If the creative work under review demonstrates importance in its local context and generates communal meaning (another of the aesthetic attributes), it should be advanced regardless of its ability to translate that importance to other contexts. Coherence starts with participants and gains broader relevance through their experiences.
Openness describes entry to the creative work, but also expresses the work’s adaptation. Social change is evolutionary and emergent—expanding and deepening simultaneously, so that returners intensify their experience while helping newcomers engage. Programmatically, organizing requires mutual respect, and incorporating feedback and creative agency to participants is a great way to show your respect (and build sustainability for your movement).
No one person can change their community alone. Arts for social change projects require deep connection between participants based on shared experiences, trust, and confidence that folks will keep showing up. Organizers don’t need to be in a community forever, and can express commitment by acknowledging a community’s identity, culture and history by incorporating that sense of place into the work. When commitment is the expression of fundamentally valuing the community, the shared value can move the needle on the issue being explored.
This Aesthetic Perspectives framework enhances both understanding and assessment of arts and social change work. The tool can help you to recognize yourself as a part of a larger field of practice, leverage that recognition to assert your work’s value, and translate that value into support. These attributes can also help you determine your project’s values and evaluate your practice alongside others doing similar work. Which attribute most defines your work?