Launching A National Arts-Based Initiative on Community and Economic Development

Across the U.S., there’s a growing recognition that art and culture can drive community and economic development. But it’s rare when those artistic efforts include rural communities and their colleges, or focus on bringing together all parts of a community, including its poor and working class residents, for development that is equitable. 

A new initiative, Performing Our Future, is creating a model for how to do just that.

Over a two-year period and with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ArtPlace America, and the National Endowment for the Arts, three communities in different geographic locations will demonstrate how artistic expression leads to community-wide empowerment and how the assets of local culture can develop economic sustainability.

A union of economists, artists, and scholars is behind the initiative’s methodology: the rural arts and humanities institution Appalshop and its Roadside Theater; the economists and students at Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project in Easton, Pa.; and the national consortium of 100 colleges advancing public scholarship, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. Key elements in the methodology include creating public performances based on local stories and mapping community assets to identify opportunities for value and wealth creation through market exchange.

“Appalshop and Roadside Theater have long been national leaders in making art for communities, with communities, and by communities with transformative results,” says Ben Cameron, Director of Arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which this week announced a $225,000 grant to support Performing Our Future. “We are thrilled to support this project, which promises to increase both appreciation for their work and the impact of their work even further.”

To enrich learning, ensure national impact, and develop and disseminate findings, the three local projects will interface with each other and with the national research team of economists, artists, scholars, and students.

The local college partners in each community will be drawn from Imagining America’s network of more than 100 higher education institutions elevating higher education’s public purposes.

One of the project sites is Appalshop’s home of Letcher County, Ky., a county in the nation’s poorest and sickest congressional district, which has developed and enacted Performing Our Future’s methodology for two years. Through Appalshop’s award-winning films, radio, music, and theater productions, community residents are exploring new strategies for entrepreneurship to replace the decline of the coal mining industry. In collaboration with Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project and Imagining America, Appalshop is leading a process for its community to translate the region’s cultural assets into new and expanded businesses, leadership development programs, and tourism.

ArtPlace America recently recognized Appalshop’s critical role in community planning and development with a $450,000 investment in Letcher County, Ky. “ArtPlace was thrilled to be able to invest in Appalshop and its partners as they investigate the role that performing arts and folk arts can play in re-imagining and growing Letcher County’s economy,” says ArtPlace America Executive Director Jamie Bennett.  “We look forward to working with them as they share what will be a national model for communities both rural and urban across our country.”

Core research questions for Performing Our Future include the ways in which culture and artistic expression shape individual and community identity, expand imagination, and influence microeconomic incentives and behavior. The research will draw on the learning of Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project, which, in addition to Appalachia, has undertaken successful projects in Easton, Pa.; rural Honduras; the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, La.; and Jamaica, winning recognition as a model of public scholarship – a rigorous research process that is driven by community expertise, and which fosters a rich environment for discovering new knowledge and student learning.

“We are excited to be a part of this important project, particularly since it exemplifies one of our major goals: providing students with opportunities to use their education to benefit communities in need,” says Lafayette College President Alison Byerly. “It’s also a powerful example of how art can change lives in concrete ways, a strong argument for the power of a liberal arts education.”

Lafayette College’s participation is supported, in part, by a generous gift from trustee George Jenkins, Class of ’74.

Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater, and Jamie Haft, assistant director of Imagining America, will co-direct Performing Our Future. Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson, associate professor of economics and director of Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project, and Scott Peters, professor in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University and faculty co-director of Imagining America, are co-principal investigators of Performing Our Future’s research.

To get involved, please contact Jamie Haft at 315-345-3931 (cell) and [email protected].  

For media inquiries, please contact Kristine Y. Todaro, Lafayette College director of special projects & media relations, at 610-330-5119 (office), 484-554-4984 (cell), and [email protected]

Cite This

“Press Release: Performing Our Future.” October 1, 2019.

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