Commentary: The case for supporting rural theater in a democracy

Dudley Cocke,, 9/30/12

We know incomes and life expectancies in rural America are significantly lower; infant mortality rates and drug abuse significantly higher. There is insufficient attention to these disparities -- per capita federal spending remains persistently lower in rural communities and only 1% of private foundation giving reaches rural nonprofit organizations. We also know these disparities persist in a grinding recession that has affected poor people regardless of geography. I direct Roadside Theater. As one of the nation's handful of rural professional theaters, Roadside has never wanted to be isolated as a special case, nor has it wanted its rural region to be separated from the fortunes and misfortunes of the rest of the country. Roadside's stalwart collaborators over the past thirty years have been in the South Bronx, New Orleans, and Pueblo Zuni, New Mexico. Rather than make a special plea for rural theater, I wish to make a plea for the democratic arts. Roadside's audience is low income and working- and middle-class people. This is close to the inverse of the national norm for theater in which 80% of the audience comes from the wealthiest 15% of the population. It is an axiom of power that who controls the culture, controls the story a nation tells itself. So it is especially important the arts contribute to a national rededication to creating a level playing field across all sectors of society. Will the rural voice be heard in the coming story the nation tells itself about itself? And will that voice rise up with the voices of others presently segregated and muted? That is the promise of art in a 21st century democracy.


Commentary: State funding cuts in Kansas hurt rural arts the hardest

Steve Rose, "913" [Kansas City Star's weekly magazine for Johnson County], 9/18/12
Where is the outrage over Gov. Sam Brownback's veto last year of state aid to the Kansas Arts Commission? Why the eerie quiet? Almost $2 million vaporized from annual support of the arts in Kansas. I think we know why Johnson County arts groups have been so complacent with the cutbacks. Simply, they were not getting that much in the first place. [And] "the effects of the loss of state and federal funding aren't as extreme in Johnson County as what's happened in rural communities," said Sarah VanLanduyt, executive director of the Arts Council of Johnson County. For rural groups, state funding represented a sizable percentage of their overall budgets. Brownback has made a token effort by setting up The Kansas Arts Foundation, funded by private donations. In its first year, it received $105,000, of which $30,000 reportedly came from Brownback's inaugural account. After expenses, there apparently was not enough money left over to make any decent-size grants, so none was distributed. Speaking only for Johnson County, the loss to local arts groups has been negligible. You don't lose much if you never had much to lose. However, since we are all Kansans, then we should pay attention to the rest of the state. For many counties, local theater and bands are all they have -- or had -- in the way of culture.


The USDA is an unlikely arts angel to a theater in rural New Jersey

Howard Shapiro, Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/30/12

The Eagle Theatre, a little semiprofessional theater amid the farmland of Hammonton, N.J., has become the beneficiary of more than $500,000 in grants and low-interest loans from a most unlikely arts angel: the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Agriculture Department money is coming in three acts, so to speak: a $23,000 grant to improve [the Eagle's] historic building, ticketing and computer programming; an $89,000 20-year loan at 3.5% interest, mainly to enhance stage equipment; and a 30-year loan of $482,000 at 3.38% interest, to buy [the] building. "It's an unusual project for the USDA to finance," said Howard Henderson, the department's rural-development director for New Jersey. "This is a fascinating way we've been able to benefit a rural community." The Rural Development program exists to strengthen or help establish facilities in rural communities that will improve downtowns, provide services, and encourage local activities. But money usually goes to such projects as a firehouse restoration or hospice units. Henderson said he wasn't surprised when the Eagle Theatre applied for the money 18 months ago, because it was no secret around Hammonton that "we have feet on the ground in rural areas. But it's unique. I believe this is the first theater we've done in Rural Development in anybody's memory over, say, the last 30 years."


Commentary: How one rural art museum has grown its audience

Paul D'Ambrosio, President/CEO of Fenimore Art Museum, Huffington Post, 6/19/12

Rural art museums face distinct challenges. Unlike our counterparts in urban areas, rural art museums must compel their audience to travel a good distance, and they must tailor their exhibitions to those travelers. At the same time, they must do so while building a donor base that is likewise not local or at least only seasonal. Several years ago these challenges appeared to be worsening for the Fenimore Art Museum with no upturn in sight. We clearly needed a change in strategy. [In 2010, we created] a small exhibition of John Singer Sargent's portraits of women, [which] had never been shown in a museum setting. For our audience, it was perfect -- an exhibition with a brand name artist that could be viewed in an hour. This gave visitors time to view other areas of the museum, enjoy a leisurely lunch, explore Cooperstown, or attend an opera matinee at the Glimmerglass Festival nearby. The result was a 10-15% increase in paid attendance. In 2011, Glimmerglass' season included an opera inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, so we went to work on a Hopper exhibition. [It] drew a bigger audience than Sargent by about another 10%. Our method of tailoring a well-publicized, must-see product to fit into an archetypical "perfect day" consisting of art, opera, scenery, and food proved to be the formula for moving attendance numbers, at least for now. While reinvigorating a small rural art museum in an economically challenged region is a satisfying accomplishment, we recognize the need for an open-minded approach to the unknown future needs of residents and visitors.


Commentary: Introducing the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group

Matthew Fluharty, The Art of the Rural blog, 8/30/12

A diverse group of artists, practitioners, and advocates recently gathered for inaugural meetings at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Massachusetts. 40 folks from across the country came 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 to start a movement. We are building this movement not only for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. We are establishing a support system that can offer, for the first time, a collaborative narrative of rural art-making 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 at last refuse the rural-urban binary. The fate of rural America is the fate of urban America. 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. To read more, 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.


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Commentary: Will the rise of the Internet bring a great rural migration?

Stephen Estes, The Huffington Post, 9/26/12

Here is a simple hypothesis I came up with that can serve as fuel for thought: The more widespread the Internet becomes, the less necessary cities become. The Internet drastically diminishes the advantages that urban living once provided, while the disadvantages of urban living remain the same. Thus, the 21st [century] may be poised to see a Great Rural Migration. The past February, with laptop in hand, I left Los Angeles and spent several months living a simpler life in Kentucky. On a beautiful farm overlooking the foothills of the Appalachians, I found peace I had never known before -- without unplugging from the world I left behind. Real estate prices are so cheap in many rural areas that it seems to me that intentional communities are far more likely to be the way of the future. Communities based on common friendship, values and purpose are forming all over the world right now. Instead of living with a bunch of people you don't know and who you possibly wouldn't want to know (and paying for it with your money, time and health), you can now live with people you choose to live with in present-day rural areas without sacrificing very much.

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