Local Arts Agencies - Still Filling the Voids

What I love most about local arts agencies is that you can’t define them, pigeonhole them or even tell anyone what a “typical” local arts agency does. I recently received the December 2009 copy of Americans for the Arts’ Monograph. Written by community arts developer and long-time friend (just for full disclosure), Maryo Gard Ewell, it is entitled “Effective Community Arts Development: Fifty Years, Fifty Tips.” And it does, in fact, go on to list fifty tips for successful community arts development. It was published by Americans for the Arts to celebrate their 50-year anniversary working with local arts agencies and community arts development.

Maryo comes from “community arts” royalty in my book. Her father was Robert Gard who received one of the first, if not the first, grant given by the National Endowment for the Arts for the arts in rural areas. He worked through the Department of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, which actually, for a time, employed several artists whose jobs were to assist and inspire (and be inspired by) rural folks making art. These were the days when we didn’t want farm wives to go stir-crazy in their isolation so farm extension programs developed all kinds of “quality of life” programs for farmers. Guess what happened? The professional arts people who traveled around became enamored by what people were doing: building community, telling and preserving stories and involving citizens in all forms of art making. It seems there is this inherent need for humans, no matter where they live, to participate in, share and experience the arts. Amazing, isn’t it?

In small and large cities, little groups formed whose missions were to support the people who wanted to make or experience the arts. These organizations became known as arts councils, and later as local arts agencies and some of them as city arts commissions, or commissions on the arts…you get the idea.

I first met Robert Gard and Maryo back in the 80s. I’d written a paper entitled “Art in the Heartland” where I talked about how important local arts councils were to rural America. I described them as organizations that “filled voids.” They were the theatre when there was no theatre company, the art gallery when there weren’t artists to run a gallery, the fiscal agent for projects, the meeting place for choirs, dance classes, ceramic classes. They were created by inspired people who looked around and said, “Our town is missing _______.” So we’ll fill that void. Today, when you fill in the blank the options are truly endless. Could be public art program, advocacy for school kids, links to the Mayor’s office, grantmakers to disperse funds, technical assistance for artists and arts groups, artist workspace developers, allied arts fundraisers, economic developers and the list goes on and on.

Americans for the Arts traces its roots back to the Community Arts Councils, Inc (CACI) started 50 years ago in Winston-Salem, NC. There were about 400 local arts agencies in 1960 and now there are over 5,000. The National Endowment for the Arts solidified everything by creating a local arts agency program in the 80s and applicants needed an official designation from their unit of government in order to receive funds. City and county governments liked this idea. Arts people liked it too. One official organization designated by a unit of government to fill the arts void in every town in America.

Maryo’s 50 tips are wonderful and I recommend everyone read this Monograph. Here’s number 1 and 2 just to whet your appetite:

  1. If would-be arts developers aspire to enable “more art for more people,” they are thinking too small. That is an idea for arts people. There must be an idea, a philosophy, about all people and the way that people can live – and live together. The goal is a human community, not merely an arts community.
  2. This philosophy must simultaneously imagine an evolution of the arts and an evolution of the community and its systems. Just having more arts available will not necessarily make the community a better place to live. Arts developers should articulate a thrilling vision of what a meaningful, healthy community for all people could be, and how the arts can help make it so. This is what we mean by “community arts development.” It is typically spearheaded by an entity originally known as a community arts council or a local arts agency. In 1969, Robert Gard said, “One of the first principles of community arts councils should be the assumption that they are and should be an instrument of social change affecting change in both the arts and community life in general….they should be experimental…in order to develop a community of creative abundance.”

A community of creative abundance…don’t we wish this for every town and city and gathering of human beings all over the world.