Hand-In-Glove: A Rural Reponse

—Maria Sykes – Principal of Arts and Culture

Photo (via Hyperallergic): Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz taking a poll during “Place, Race, Geography, and Power” at Hand-in-Glove 2015. On the right, I’m raising my hand on stage conceding that I could be perceived as a gentrifier.

I recently traveled to Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minnesota, to attend the third Hand-In-Glove convening—an itinerant gathering created by and for practitioners in the field of alternative art spaces, projects, and organizations. For over four days, we investigated the contexts and conditions of artist-led culture across the country and deepened peer-relationships. Thank you to Common Field, Works Progress Studio, and The Soap Factory for inviting me to participate in Hand-In-Glove 2015.

At the convening, I had the honor of joining Chaun Webster, Dylan Miner, and Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz in a discussion panel titled Place, Race, Geography, & Power.* I entered the conversation believing we were to discuss our respective work within our communities, specifically the projects and programs that subvert gentrification, honor place, and empower minority cultures (in my case, rural = minority). However, the conversation focused on settler colonialism, urban gentrification, and ownership.

The conversation focused on problems worthy of being unpacked, but which cannot be resolved in a short panel discussion. I do believe that the panel succeeded in forwarding the conversation of the artist’s role in social justice in urban places. I appreciated the other panelists thoughts on ownership and capitalism, but I feel we never got to our solutions or the hope that lies in much of our work. Given the urban majority of the panel as well as limited time, we never brought the conversation out of the city and into the rural, nor were we able to connect the two. For example, there are many social ills that are assigned to urban space that are also prevalent in rural places including, but not limited to: persistent poverty, racism, pollution, homelessness, gentrification, and marginalization of minority cultures. Additionally, many would argue that rural places lack access to resources that are available to urban places (e.g. some private foundations in Utah do not fund outside of the Wasatch front, the state’s urban center).

I’d like to share a few rural movements, projects, organizations, and rural realities that I encourage my urban counterparts to explore:

Rural and urban have much to learn from one another. The possibilities that lie in rural-urban exchange are endless, and one current example is the Art of the Rural’s Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange effort. The Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange is a new approach to creative placemaking; instead of focusing on “creating place” in one community, they’re building a statewide network of both rural and urban leaders, building the capacity of the entire state, and sharing resources across regions. Urban and rural places have a shared social and economic future that can be shaped by both parties working together.

In my own practice at Epicenter, we actively host outside artists and creatives (Frontier Fellows) who are typically from urban areas. This is a controversial idea to many rural communities, as many would argue the value of supporting local artists over outsiders. However, that’s not Green River’s reality: there are few practicing artists in town who make their living solely off of their art, and therefore, no arts community, district, or coalition. Epicenter brings in creative professionals for 4-6 weeks at a time to discern and celebrate local traditions, art forms, and cultures. It’s powerful that these visitors are from “the city,” as they bring fresh eyes and enthusiasm for exploring a place that has long been familiar to the local residents.

Gentrification affects rural communities, and often, it’s not just a neighborhood, but rather the entire town that is affected. An obvious example is Marfa, but I’ll focus on an example close to home. Moab, just forty-five minutes south of Green River, is a prime example of the impact of multiple waves of booms and busts on a rural community. Forty years ago, Moab was a small town that many would say was economically struggling after the uranium mining industry died. In the 1980’s, the town became a mountain biking mecca and the culture of the place began to shift once again towards outsiders (one could argue that the culture was previously dominated by local, boaters, cowboys, farmers, and miners). Today, Moab is utterly chaotic during the peak tourist season, and more importantly, the lower and middle class (typically those working in hospitality, the arts, and/or the non-profit sector) have limited housing options due to astronomical land values. Luckily, there are many organizations (see: Community Rebuilds, WabiSabi, KZMU, Multicultural Center, etc.) working within the system to create change. Historically, some powerful voices in Moab driving local policy had been interested in growing a tourism economy without prioritizing local quality of life (e.g. affordable workforce housing); the organizations and citizens that work towards increasing local quality of life in Moab have made great progress, but still have obstacles to overcome.

In my practice at Epicenter, we’re focused on partnering with the locally owned/operated businesses, planning from within the community, and building on existing assets. We are not depending on an outside-savior industry. And we will not let outsiders take over the process for their own profit. Green River is attempting to sustainably build its tourism industry, but with housing, the existing workforce, local businesses, and artists/designers at its heart.

Rural places require a holistic approach to community development; you should not tackle housing inequality or policy without working with local business owners or without using art and design to inform the process. You should not encourage creative expression without addressing the quality of life of the people/creators. Either in the Q&A or a follow-up discussion to my Place, Race, Geography & Power panel, someone asked me what I meant by “building wealth” for the entire community. It’s not just about cash money. There are many types of wealth: individual, intellectual, social, cultural, natural, built, political, and financial (see: The Rural Policy Research Initiativer and Wealthworks). I believe the choices we make as artists/designers/organizers can positively impact any and all of these forms of wealth through a comprehensive and thoughtful approach.

Racism continues to affect rural communities. For example, my friend and colleague Rachel Reynolds Luster, who founded the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-op in rural Missouri, recently discovered that the Klu Klux Klan would be holding a camp/workshop/training (open to minors!) in a nearby town. You can imagine Luster’s outrage at the possibility of hate defining the region she loves. She had to do something and could not sit by idly. Luster’s #notmyozarks movement is a powerful example and reminder that rural places are battling hate alongside urban centers.

At one point during the Place, Race, Geography & Power panel, I posed this question: “Is it possible for us to improve the quality of life for a community without erasing its culture?” To me, this question is everything and I do believe it is possible. I’d like to share a few tenets I believe are necessary for working within my rural community (and maybe your community):

     Speak plainly. I intentionally speak plainly. I appreciate philosophy and abstraction, and I understand its place, but I      believe that if I want to truly be genuine, my practice and the discussion of my work must be non-esoteric and jargon-free.

     Be at the table or you’re on the menu. To me, “being at the table” means contributing to my town’s monthly City Council      meetings, getting to know people in a genuine way, forming professional and long-term relationships with local leaders      and go-getters, spending time getting to know the youth, and more. If you want to instigate change but aren’t a part of the      community and the decision making, you will get eaten alive — you will be constantly questioned by locals who don’t trust      your investment in the community. I also realize that not everyone is privileged enough to get to the table, so it’s my      responsibility to represent those individuals who “don’t have a voice” as best I can and whenever possible.

     Art plus X is key. In rural places, art for art’s sake is less common than in urban locations. Rural practitioners typically      have to pair art with education, graphic design, youth, recreation, folklore, etc. to make it meaningful and memorable for      participants. Meeting your community in the middle (by pairing art with something they may be more familiar with) is      important; don’t compromise your work, but be willing to explore your practice.

     Honor and invest in place. For many cultures, honoring place is just a natural part of life. For the rest of us, we have to      discern what makes our place special and celebrate it. I believe in honoring what exists and enhancing that with new      and/or outsider cultural production.

     Help your community envision its future. It’s easy to dwell on the problems, but artists can paint pictures, write poems,      and lead change to help a community envision where it wants to be in the future. Once you have that shared vision, you      can start taking tangible steps to make the vision a reality.

     Work with, not for, your community. This idea has been around for years. Artists, organizers, and arts organizations      have the tendency to work in isolation as servants to a cause. Empower the community and work with them. You cannot      and should not do it all on your own.

     Duration is key. You cannot expect to create real change with one project or even a few years of work. I’ve been living      and working non-stop in my rural town for over six years, and I feel I’ve barely begun. Putting down roots (especially in      a rural place) goes against the Millennial norm; everyone wants mobility and freedom, but you can’t have those in this line      of work. But I do have a place that needs me and a place that I need. I am lucky enough to witness both the daily changes      and the kind of progress that takes years to achieve.

Are you a rural practitioner or artist interested in the ideas above? Please stay tuned to participate in the Common Field Rural Chapter that I will be co-establishing with Greg Gandy, Melinda Childs, Matthew Fluharty, and Brett Hunter. We seek to ensure the rural perspective is heard and respected.

     *In the majority of the recaps of this panel, the authors completely leave out my name, organization, and any mention of      the rural perspective. I don’t take this exclusion personally because it’s not about me, it’s about the ongoing struggle to      ensure the rural perspective is heard and respected in all conversations.