By Dudley Cocke
From the Urban Institute study, Investing in Creativity
As part of a two-year national study, Investing in Creativity, which is being supported by 38 private and public foundations, several dozen artists and arts supporters met at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, September 17-19, 2002. The meeting was hosted by the Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., and the Center for Rural Strategies, Whitesburg, Kentucky. In preparation for the meeting on support systems for artists working and living in rural communities, Dudley Cocke was asked to reflect on the differences and similarities of urban and rural places as contexts in which artists pursue their careers. Following are his reflections.
Not based on any systematic research, these remarks reflect the 26-year experience of my rural theater company as it has traveled across the United States, performing and conducting residencies in communities in 43 states and developing intercultural plays with diverse artists whose mission is to serve low- and moderate-income people. In my experience, artists serving this audience are different from artists serving a more exclusive audience. I think that it is fair to say that the majority of artists serving low- and moderate-income communities live in the communities they serve. This paper's approach, then, will be to link theater artists practicing in poor and moderate-income rural communities (not Vail or Steamboat Springs) to theater artists in inner-city (not gentrified) communities by discussing some of the similarities between their values, needs, and support systems and by contrasting them with the values, needs, and support systems of artists serving the more exclusive audience.
To lend some perspective to this focus, it is worth noting that the audience for not-for-profit professional theater is the wealthiest 15 percent of Americans. This group presently represents a little more than 80 percent of those who regularly attend. (I expect that a significant part of this audience is actually suburban, and perhaps one could make the case that wealthy rural communities, like Vail, are also suburban, measured by lifestyle, etc.) In my view, this elite audience bodes ill for the artistic vitality of professional theater; I don't think great theater can rise from such a narrow social base, especially in an epoch when democracy is the ideal and diversity is its renewable source of energy.
I think that it is also worth noting that my focus on rural and inner-city artists serving low- and moderate-income people occurs in a policy vacuum: currently there is no social contract with the rest of the nation spelling out why rural and inner-city communities are important to our national future.
My theater's most recent collaboration was with a black theater company from New Orleans and a Puerto Rican teatro from the South Bronx. Someone asked me, "How in the world did you find each other?" "Wasn't so difficult," I answered. "There we were-the Black Belt South, central Appalachia, and the South Bronx-all bunched up at the bottom of most every government poverty study. It seemed like we were long-lost cousins."
The general issues for poor and low-income people and their communities, whether urban or rural, are well documented: poor schools and low educational achievement, the fact that the poor pay higher prices for food and other necessities, limited health care, environmental degradation (guess what community hosts the New Orleans Superfund site?), and so forth. I'm reminded of a story from the Depression. Several hundred men are standing in a breadline. One of the men, a Negro, turns to his buddy and says, "Notice, white folks are still in the lead."
What isn't so well documented are the cultural values that these seemingly disparate communities share, and how these values affect artists.
Inner-city and rural artists have a similar conception of their relationship to history: they see themselves as a link in a chain that includes the dead, the living, and the unborn. This is a different conception of time and memory than that embraced by the many artists who think of themselves as the "cutting edge" of the urban contemporary culture.
To slice it another way, rural and inner-city artists think in terms of both individual and collective genius, whereas their counterparts think mostly about individual genius. By collective genius, I mean the accumulated wisdom and expressions of a people distilled and passed along by tradition. Rural and inner-city artists know that for traditions to live, they must be made new-renewed. Such artists, fully realizing the collective source of their art, blur the line between individual genius and the genius of the culture.
Several stories might help illustrate this point. Thirty-odd years ago, a very famous folksinger from California came to the coalfields of central Appalachia to perform in a high school auditorium. A big crowd was on hand as a local string band opened the concert. The local band, rising to the occasion, had the audience's rapt attention. I'm told that you could hear a pin drop. The famous folksinger followed with some success. Backstage, she made a point to congratulate the local band on their performance, noting that she, too, often sang from the Appalachian songbook. She went on to say how keenly the audience had been listening to their music and wondered what their secret was. "What is that little something extra you seem to have?" she asked repeatedly, each time more emphatically. The local band kindly looked at the floor as she pressed for an answer. Finally the fiddle player spoke up, "Well ma'am, the only difference that I could tell was that you were playing out front of them ol' songs, and we were right behind 'em."
Ralph Ellison deftly spins the fiddler's point:
There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. (The Charlie Christian Story, Shadow and Act, page 234)
Wendell Berry summarizes the dichotomy:
Individual genius of the modern kind never has courage equal to its essential loneliness, and so it commits itself passionately to clichs of individualism and a uniformity of innovation, ignorant of what precedes it, destructive of what it ignores.
But the real genius of a country, though it may indeed fructify in great individual geniuses, is in the fine abilities-in the minds, eyes, and hands-of tens of thousands of ordinary workers.
Coming to Ireland has reminded me again how long, complex, and deep must be the origins of the best work of any kind.
As Wendell Berry advocates, rural and inner-city artists often set their projects to a different clock. In 1985, my theater and traditional Native American artists in Zuni, New Mexico, agreed to a 25-year collaboration. Given the cultural gulf (not to mention the history of warfare) between our two peoples, we thought it was a realistic interval-and this has proven to be correct. With work clocks often deviating dramatically from standard artistic time (in regional theater, for example, assembly-line projects are the standard), it's no wonder that the work of rural and inner-city artists strikes many people in the arts world as unfashionable.
Just as rural and inner-city artists value tradition, so both are conscious of the interdependent lives of their community's members. This awareness encourages these tradition-bearers to become community-builders as well. Their artmaking (both its products and its process) often explicitly seeks to affect the quality of life for the people around them. An artist must be highly functional to accomplish his or her work, and this is an attractive quality in communities experiencing dysfunction. For inner-city and rural artists, crying needs are hard to tune out, even as the artist realizes that a solution is far beyond his or her capacity. What often results are community partnerships between such artists and their community's educators, health care providers, criminal justice workers, social service agents, and others. Given their druthers, some inner-city and rural artists might prefer to practice art for art's sake, but they would have to relocate to do it.
By their nature, such artist-community partnerships are intergenerational, interdisciplinary, and action-oriented, so it's not surprising that these same traits show up in the practice of these artists. In the South Bronx, there is now hip-hop theater, and it places audience participation, not cool spectatorship, at the center of the experience. Jazz, in its popular swing era, included different generations both on and off the stage. Every performance night at the storied Savoy Ballroom (also in the South Bronx), the band was swinging the dancers and the dancers were swinging the band. By reports, it was a subtle exchange that produced an infectious art form. Ralph Ellison goes so far as to argue that when jazz retreated from this grand interplay with dance, it lost its opportunity to be the occasion for the fulfillment of the American ideal, e pluribus unum.
Oral traditions are equally important to both inner-city and rural artists, because both find that most of their culture's literature and history is not in books. It exists in the stories and oral histories known by community members. For example, without the New Deal's WPA Oral History Project, we would have almost no African-American slave narratives.
Oral traditions affect not only the content but the form of the theater created by inner-city and rural artists. For example, the oral form frees the audience to talk and sing back to the actors, much like the call-and-response in southern church services. This is in contrast to the literary tradition of their suburban and urban counterparts, where an imaginary fourth wall usually divides the performer from the spectator.
The Puerto Rican, Appalachian, and African-American theater artists who participated in our collaboration believed in these values of tradition, community-building, and story. The three companies agreed from the outset to create a play that caused their cultures to interact in a novel way at the same time that it strengthened each culture's tradition. Such a premise necessarily elevates the importance of process, so six years was not viewed as an overly long period for the project.
The initial two years of our three-way collaboration were spent visiting, in round-robin fashion, one another's communities in order to learn about each other's audience and local issues, as well as one another's performance aesthetic. Stories, and a particular story circle methodology that the companies developed, were used in all phases of the project-to build trust among the artists and with audiences as well as to develop the script.
We were the first white theater that the Puerto Rican company had presented, so they were understandably unsure about how to pitch us to their community. As it turned out, the connection was the mountains-the mountains of Puerto Rico and the mountains of Appalachia. The performances were packed, and afterwards there were spirited discussions about the merits of island versus Appalachian moonshine, ways to cook chicken, the hard times for family farming, and many other subjects that engage rural people wherever they meet.
Another recent collaboration underscores the rural roots of many inner-city dwellers. It occurred in California's East Bay Richmond District, in a former shipbuilding section known as the Iron Triangle. After rehearsal one night, we were invited to a Mien (Laotian) family's house for dinner. The fish had been caught by one of the family members that day, and the tasty greens harvested from an abandoned neighborhood lot. The drink wasn't homemade, however, but expensive Scotch, which flowed continuously. Toasting our host, I pointed out that in his birth country he had been a leading professional singer, was now a janitor, but after our project was certain to achieve the status of folk artist. For those of us around the table that night in the Triangle, it was easy to imagine that "rural" was really a spiritual state, dependent on daily contact with the natural world.
At first it might seem that the needs of artists in wide open spaces and close neighborhoods would be significantly different, but in my experience there are far more similarities than differences. For example, both lack sufficient markets and training opportunities. Often key partners and collaborators, such as producers, agents, and curators, don't exist in either setting. Without advocates, without scholars interested in documenting their work, without meaningful criticism, both rural and inner-city artists often feel that the real not-for-profit arts infrastructure lies just beyond their reach.
There are, of course, different realities that affect inner-city and rural artists, such as the high cost of office, rehearsal, and performance space in cities and population declines in rural areas. In the 1990s, half the rural communities in the United States lost population and faced declining employment growth-just as real estate in our largest cities was going sky-high.
A recent Rand-Pew study of arts organizations hypothesizes a future in which mid-sized organizations collapse under intense pressure, leaving small, mostly volunteer organizations on the one hand, and large, rich, star-driven institutions on the other. There are reasons to think that this scenario is unfolding. Across the nation and with few exceptions, mid-sized inner-city and rural arts organizations are hurting-and some have already closed. It figures that such organizations would feel the pressure first, because their audiences are of modest means. It is also worth remembering that there are no large, not-for-profit performing arts institutions dedicated to serving the 85 percent majority.
Many young aspiring artists whom I meet, whether in the city or in the country, do not regard the not-for-profit arts sector as a viable option. Those not drawn to the commercial arts sector accept that their "day jobs" will have to subsidize their art. For them, the not-for-profit world offers more problems than solutions: poor wages, inadequate training, a low tolerance for innovation accompanied by lots of bureaucracy, and little opportunity for advancement and leadership. Some of this attitude can be chalked up to issues of generational succession, but I suspect not all of it. Has anyone been tracking the number of not-for-profit start-ups by age of founders?
My 26-year-old daughter earns her living as an historian in New York City and devotes several hours a day to dance. Her studio, founded by a West African dancer brought to the United States to become part of the Alvin Ailey Company, has its 501c3 tax-exempt status but hasn't received any grants. It doesn't have the staff to deal with all the proposal apparatus, and, although among dancers it has the reputation as the leading studio teaching Dunham technique, it isn't known by most of Manhattan's not-for-profit dance organizations. My daughter checked out half a dozen other studios and says that there's no comparison: at her studio the dancers are diverse by about any measure, the music is always live, and the instruction is rigorous and effective, and the studio's public presentations take place in Harlem for a broad audience.
For inner-city and rural artists working in the not-for-profit sector, public agencies and private foundations are the two main sources of contributed income. Such artists are usually without wealthy patrons. Sales of goods and services make up the rest of the artist's livelihood.
Public agencies, especially at the federal level, have had the most favorable impact on rural and inner-city artists in the past 75 years. This impact has been in both dollars and advocacy. Before the national endowments for the arts and humanities, there was the New Deal's WPA and its federal arts projects. My theater owes its start to the 1960s' Office of Economic Opportunity's war on poverty. (At that time, all poor people, regardless of race or ethnicity, were classified by the feds as minorities.) The Department of Labor's national job training program (CETA) in the 1970s was responsible for the start of many other inner-city and rural arts organizations. CETA arguably had more impact on this part of the arts field than the combined efforts of the two national endowments. Inner-city and rural artists continue to seek support from a variety of federal agencies, such as the departments of Education and Justice.
Unfortunately for states-rights idealists (I was once one), local, state, and regional public support for rural and inner-city artists has been mostly a trickle-down affair, dependent on federal leadership and fiscal incentives. Just as the Justice Department was the most committed government advocate for desegregation, so the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been the most consistent public advocate for rural and inner-city artists. My theater company received federal arts support for several years before the state abandoned its position that eastern Kentucky was genetically incapable of producing a professional theater.
Championing rural and inner-city artists at the Arts Endowment were the directors and staffs of the Expansion Arts and Folk Arts programs (neither of which now exists). Expansion Arts was a legacy of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty. Its mission was to support artists and arts organizations that were of, by, and for inner-city, rural, and tribal communities. The Folk Arts program supported traditional artists who learned their craft from their community, neighbors, and family members, as opposed to training in the fine arts academies. Of course, this folk art approach to training is how the majority of artists from rural and inner-city communities learn their craft. The pursuit of artistic excellence was an integral part of both programs, and both were a steady voice for a national policy of inclusion and equal opportunity.
This advocacy influenced not only other public agencies at state, local, and regional levels, but private foundations as well. New foundation staff regularly came to the NEA to understand how a particular discipline was defined and to learn about issues and opportunities. As the most inclusive funding body in the not-for-profit arts sector, the NEA was important in setting both an open tone and wide perimeters. With the demise of federal leadership, fewer funding sources, private or public, are concerned about rural and inner-city artists, and those that are tend to operate inconsistently: too often their commitment is short-lived and their approach not derived from an ongoing and meaningful dialogue with potential grantees.
In the past several decades, it was best for rural and inner-city artists when there were strong public-private partnerships. For example, the Ruth Mott Fund's most frequent funding partner was the NEA's Folk Arts program. At the center of this sustained 17-year collaboration was the exchange and building of knowledge about the field's realities.
Now, without federal leadership, inner-city and rural artists are left to cobble together their funding from many small sources, which is expensive. Even in the stable organizations serving wealthy audiences, the artist remains at the low end of the organizational pay scale. Increasingly, a disorganized, fragmented, and underfinanced support system appears as the reality facing all artists. I think that it is fair to ask not only on what specific information, but on what channels of information foundation staff and trustees base their policy. Presently without seats at the not-for-profit decision-making tables, artists are left fighting one another for scarce resources-an ultimately self-defeating exercise.
From my perspective of 26 years in the arts, the future has never looked bleaker for not-for-profit performing artists, perhaps generally, and certainly for those whose audience is not the wealthiest 15 percent. Not-for-profit is a significant qualifier here, because the commercial sector and the unincorporated arts sector continue to provide plenty of opportunities. But 20 years of sustained political attack on its values, diminished public investment, and growing cultural isolationism in the country as a whole have taken their toll on the not-for-profit arts. The sector's current lack of leadership, its elite audience, its inability to build and communicate knowledge about its practice, and the fact that young artists are turning away from it, all indicate the seriousness of the problem.
One could argue that there is nothing wrong with the commercial and unincorporated arts sectors taking up the slack, but that would be to concede that the independent sector has no unique and important role to play in a democracy. Wholly subject neither to market pressures nor to political exigencies, the independent sector should combine the entrepreneurship of successful private business with the sole public purpose of benefiting society. The question is whether the current and emerging leadership of the not-for-profit arts community will reassert this special character and reclaim the hope and potential that this sector uniquely represents.