This year Jackson Hole, Wyoming was the setting for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies’ (NASAA) 2013 Leadership Institute. Top level executives and leaders from all 56 state and juristictional arts agencies attended. NASAA CEO Jonathan Katz, PhD, noted that this year’s meeting focused on optimizing state arts agency public value; to that end, agency leaders must keep abreast of societal trends and sentiments.
For the second time in a week author-activist Terry Tempest Williams presented a keynote speech to arts advocates and representatives here in Jackson, and Wyoming’s Alan K. Simpson delivered a passionate talk at an evening celebration highlighting Wyoming’s arts at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. For several days Jackson received a diverse cultural injections and multiple opportunities to widen our scope of knowledge with regard to strategies and mission.
In an interview, Katz noted that despite Jackson’s geographical isolation, choosing it as this year’s meeting destination wasn’t an extravagant decision. As the organization is an arm of state government, it’s mindful of expense; per-diem costs matter. Jackson’s season had wound down, group rates were attractive and coming to such a beautiful place proved an excellent return on investment.
We tend to think of Wyoming as a stand-apart state when it comes to a low percentage of people residing in urban areas; but a quick look at 2010’s government census urbanized population map reveals that a massive portion of our county has NO urbanized population. States, with a few exceptions, are primarily rural. I spoke to Katz about the theory that when urban hubs become especially creatively revitalized, rural communities can be emptied out, making it difficult for rural communities to create their own “vibrancy.”
Tammy Christel: One the topics for this year’s conference is “Rural Myths, Realities and Opportunities,” a conversation about rural America’s being shaped by “numerous social, demographic, economic and technological forces, many of which affect the success of state arts agency programs and policies.” When larger cities become especially revitalized, with a lot of great city planning going on, a lot of public art installed, all kinds of initiatives—what happens to rural communities? Are they sucked into an economic black hole?
Jonathan Katz: I directed the Kansas Art Commission for several years, and mine was a rural state. The challenges of rural life are that there are plenty of things to do to take up your time, but there’s not a lot of diversity of resources because there aren’t that many people in any one concentrated area. There aren’t that many industries in the area, so it’s fragile.
But there are offsetting values. Because when something happens in a rural community, you can get a group of people involved—and it can be a small number—who can really make a difference. It’s not uncommon to have an arts event with more people attending than live in the community. They come from other places. They’ll drive. So they think of their community as a wider space.
Part of the challenge of rural living is when kids go away to college and immerse themselves in a learning and cultural experience, and their expectations change. They expect that where they’re going to live will be the kind of place with the plentiful resources they’ve now become familiar with. So as they often do, they go to the theater, opera, the symphony, they see foreign movies with independent presses and they get involved themselves in these creative activities, and they want to live in a place and have a career, raise a family and be in business with these amenities.
It’s a challenge to rural communities to gather the resources that can speak to that life. In Kansas, the impetus for our investment in the arts was that the same city leaders, mostly women, who had built the hospitals and the community colleges and seen their kids go off, didn’t want their kids to not come back. So the next thing was the arts. If you don’t invest in the arts in rural life it’s hard to attract the dentist, the attorney, the doctor; it’s part of how we need to think strategically about making the life that we want, especially when we don’t have a lot of people in the space. I think it’s something more purposeful for rural towns.
TC: It sounds like Terry Tempest Williams’ experiences & projects in Rwanda, with Lily Yeh, had that kind of purpose.
JK: Every state has a geopolitic. In Arkansas you have Little Rock, and then there’s the rest of the state, most of which is rural. In Missouri, you have St. Louis, Kansas City, and the rest of the state, most of which is rural. And in Illinois, you have the great urban area of Chicago, you have eight middle-sized cities with 50,000 or so in population, and the rest is rural. And in New York, you have the five boroughs—-but you have an area, Appalachia, that is really extensive and geographically isolated in a state we always think of as a great urban capital.
The political truth is that every state is rural. And every state’s senate is largely influenced by its rural areas.
TC: I was thinking of your group as “arts congressmen.”
JK: Yes. And that’s a useful way to think of us, because we’re about public service and we look at every county. We look at every area to make sure that the public dollar coming in via taxes is going out in service, everywhere. That’s part of our job. Private sector donations and individual giving and foundations are very important—-but the unique value of having a state arts agency is its consideration that a value is OWED to residents because they are taxpayers, and they occupy the land. And government needs to respond to that, so that there’s as rich a life as possible, and all the choices are there for the people of the state.
TC: Dr. Katz, thank you very much.
I’ll return to NASAA in subsequent posts. To learn more about the national arts organization’s mission and interests, visit their website, www.nasaa-arts.org.