Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Opportunity with New Creative Community

Tammy Parks writing some last responses before moving into Social Acupuncture...
I begin this writing with an unexpected opportunity. Each winter, I take my Art League students downtown to paint the windows on Main Street for Christmas. The town sponsors this project by purchasing all the necessary paints and brushes and providing lunch for the participants. The assistant to the town manager, Barbara Tate, organizes the logistics of scheduling the date and providing us with the lunch and our transportation. She and I have become closer over the past three years as we have talked about projects that can help beautify and develop our economically and aesthetically depressed downtown area. Barbara called me two weeks ago to finalize our painting plans for this semester. Last semester, my students also completed a huge mural sponsored by the town with some money from a rural renewal grant. I enjoyed facilitating the project and enjoyed working on the site. I casually mentioned to her my interest in developing a community-based art program here.
Currently, we have and support, on a minimum funding level at least, the Fine Arts Center for the New River Valley which provides art exhibitions every few months, limited art classes and a fundraising event of wine tasting and a craft show at the lake each summer. Their main focus for the last three years has been to raise money to move from their current location on Main Street to a larger building donated by a deceased citizen. The “new building,” built in the 1940’s, will require a great deal of money and energy to renovate. Many of the wives of our most wealthy citizens, at least in terms of paying yearly dues, are members of the Center’s Board. I was once a member of the Center and as the educational committee chairperson I attempted to broaden the program by encouraging scholarships for students, scheduling a variety of classes offered to adults and children, making contacts with local artists and developing some community projects. I quickly lost patience with the director who is wary and defensive of anyone who offers change of any sort. The majority of the members and volunteers are middle-aged or older and regard the Center like their little fiefdom or personal property. After two years of watching little progress in any direction, I resigned. I decided that my energy was being wasted and my stress level was way too high to remain there.
To my great surprise, Barbara called me two days after our short conversation and asked if I would be interested in meeting with her and the town manager to discuss my ideas further. Enter the unexpected opportunity. She scheduled a meeting for last week, I made some notes and the three of us had a great session of throwing around ideas for an hour and a half. John Holly, the town manager, has observed how the Center has provided a service for only a select population in the community and he was very interested in supporting a program that involves a diverse group of participants from a wider range of ages, races and economic situations.
Our meeting ended with the understanding that I will work on creating a name for the potential program and its mission statement. John will contact a local businessman who owns many empty buildings in the area to see about a potential location that could be written as a tax write-off for the owner. Barbara will tentatively work on the basic grant writing. I was delighted to hear that she is the official grant writer for the town as well, which she refers to as one of the many “duties as assigned” described in her contract. As I read Arlene Goldbard’s New Creative Community, I found myself reflecting on how I could apply her thoughts and definitions to this potential new project of mine.
Why do we need a community-based arts organization here in my town? I think there are a few theoretical underpinnings to build upon. Community members and students I encounter connect art with urban areas. Art is something we need to travel to a city to see. Goldbard feels that CCD programs can provide a “critique of the urban domination of art-making and a parallel of the validity of rural forms, themes and styles.” (114) We have so many talented and creative people in my community who have no outlets for their gifts and who feel that there is little recognition of their vocation in particular and of art in general. Hopefully, a community-based arts organization would help correct this.
Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator, believes this type of collective engagement can move from “magic thinking (seeing reality as the product of baffling and hidden processes beyond one’s control) to critical consciousness (being able to comprehend and enter into the process of shaping reality)” (118) Some scholars name acquiring this critical consciousness as liberation education or critical pedagogy. I do feel believe that community-based art projects can mobilize the participants to resist values that are imposed on them by the corporate world. Individuals gain the ability to participate in democratic discourse as they interact socially and participate in dialogue rather than in the isolated and passive routines involving phones, computers and televisions. There are very few occasions in Pulaski where people in the community come together outside of scheduled church or sports events. Our town is run by middle-aged white men who are very isolated in their speech and interaction. Some speak about wanting change here but seem frozen in inaction. They feel hesitant and unqualified to speak out on or to attend meetings about matters related to anything, especially in art.
I am interested in approaching this community-based program as an asset-based community development venture focusing more on the “communities’ tangible and intangible assets than on their deficits and problems.” (138) The natural beauty of our location with its lakes, valleys and mountains is one of our strongest assets. I would include our ability to speak with warmth to neighbors and strangers. We still refer to this as southern hospitality. However one evaluates the adjective “southern”, there is a hospitable element in the cultural climate here.
Goldbard believes that the armatures of CCD programs should include an exploration into the themes important to the well-being of its participants. To identify these themes the participants start by learning more about their community, acquiring information through what she calls action research or learning by doing. Goldbard refers to this process as building a thick description of the cultural conditions and challenges. Participants start gathering census data, historical accounts, maps and, finally, personal interviews with residents of the community.
The group is supposed to compile the data in order to identify what themes need to be addressed in the sponsored projects. Goldbard says that the CCD participants can “use the wisdom of heritage to inform choices about how to move forward.” (71) This seems to be a very demanding and difficult process that requires much time and attention. Students and adults who have lived their whole lives in this town know little to nothing about the history and heritage of this area.
The past can be a guide, however, but not a dictator. In our conference call this past week, Laura mentioned Mordechai Kaplon’s conviction that “the past has a vote, not a veto.” (152) I have followed this tenet throughout my life. But if the past is going to be a resource for us, if we are going to be receptive to what it might say and reveal to us, then we don’t get a veto on the past either.
I believe that our lack of historical knowledge goes even deeper than our ignorance of it. The events of 9-11 and the consequences that followed were an expression of the deep fear that permeates our culture. Americans are afraid of anything that could disrupt their comfort, whether physical or ideological. Goldbard quotes John Berger’s “fear of the present leads to a mystification of the past.” (67) When we create cults of the past with monuments, mysteries, symbols and icons, the past is dead and embalmed and cannot be a resource to enlighten or enliven. I see this fear and its enforcement of ignorance of the past in many of my students.
After the data has been compiled, a database of contacts, images and stories, Goldbard suggests that the organizers need to be prepared to offer a real range of possible projects. These projects need to be open-ended so as to leave the content and focus to be determined by the participants. Once the participants decide upon the project, the organizers need to have “structures in place ready to start” (91) and organizers should be observant to ensure the equality of participation and collective expression. Goldbard asserts that a true CCD program should be a journey of “discovery, connection and co-creation.” (60) She also advocates that the projects chosen through this thorough oral and written research may be temporal in exhibition but should result in some type of permanent record that can add to the thick description of the community.
(I pause here having considered Goldbard’s detailed description and explanation of what is involved in organizing a CCD program to ask a few questions that relate to the focus of this Insider/Outsider seminar. Could such a project be undertaken by a real “outsider”? Does the process itself help turn an outsider into an insider? I optimistically think that if an artist in residence or organizer from the “outside” were to diligently follow Goldbard’s process to gather a thick description of the community they have chosen to work within, their efforts would bring them closer to that community and allow them insight that leads him or her to the inside.)
I was most interested in Goldbard’s inclusion of rural aesthetics in the conversation. I can see the application of “Appalachia is Beautiful” as a way of “using aesthetic standards to acknowledge the oppression and overturn it.” (114) The real evil that permeates my community is this sense of shame that hangs over us. My students are ashamed that the area is depressed economically, ashamed that is rural with little modern entertainment and ashamed that they are not living someplace else, and they plan overtly or covertly to leave with a vengeance when they can. They are ashamed of their accents when they venture outside the community. They see their lives as one long nonachievement and they want to distance themselves from the area they feel is responsible for that nonachievement.
Goldbard says that community can be brought together by a common threat as a way of defining or redefining a CCD project. Thinking about this in context of my locality I can identify four significant threats to the life and culture of my community.
If I were attempting to identify a common threat or enemy in my community, I would first mention the threat of OxyContin. Goldbard makes reference to Appalachia having the highest abuse rate of OxyContin in the US. OxyContin addiction is responsible for a huge increase in neighborhood and interfamilial robberies in our area to gain money to purchase these pills or simply to steal them from those who are on them legally. My own father, who has a liver disease which causes an overproduction of iron in his blood, only responds to this type of man-made pain medication. He has kept this a secret from everyone because he is truly afraid that he would be a target if someone knew he had OxyContin in his home.
Secondly I see globalization as a threat in my community. “Globalization excludes the poor and powerless.” (40) Other than providing my community with a plethora of cell phones and computers that they can’t afford, I don’t see how globalization is impacting my community positively. The local mills and furniture plants have all closed and replaced by mills and plants in other parts of the world in order to save money and pay the workers there inhumane wages. Globalization to this town means moving your jobs to the other side of the globe…globalmobilization I call it. “It is the lack of pleasure in daily work which has made our towns and habitations sordid and hideous.” (103) With few jobs to chose from, people in my community are starved for satisfying work, for work that is fulfilling, challenging and engaging.
Needless to say poverty is the third threat I find in Appalachia. Of the 250 poorest counties in the US, 244 are rural. Rural school spending is 25% less per pupil as compared to urban areas, and 40% of rural populations have no access to public transportation.
Finally, I identify the dominating force of the media, especially television, as a fourth threat to Appalachia. Goldbard thinks television is “eschewing the flesh-and-blood contact of social intercourse and direct participation in community life.” (45) Once again I stress the power of embodied participation in life’s events rather than our passive reception to the spectacle provided by mass marketing. Goldbard calls it a “media induced trance.” (48) There is something about directly working on-site and with your hands that helps you feel the passing of time and the energy of the space with your body. I am interested in on-site projects where people interact with the materials and with each other physically in the process.
As an example, I was the recipient of a few dozen used heads from a cosmetology class. Many of them have been shaved. They now sit in a huge trashcan in my art room waiting for a project. What if we initiated a Heads Above the Rest project where local artists, students, business owners and social organizations decorated each head? The project could bring attention to the skills of local artists, make connections to the natural assets of the area, and bring people face to face with art on the street.
I think it is important to remember, though, that the participants need to work together on something positive, not simply forming a group of angry dissidents interested in focusing on problems rather than possible solutions. The author warns us to avoid superficial unity in either a positive or negative focus.
The greatest impediment to establishing a community-based program where I live is that it will be “perceived as a threat to maintaining the arts as a special preserve of privilege and will dilute funds reserved for more established programs.” (165) That program, of course, will be the Fine Arts Center in my town. Goldbard recommends hybridity in the development of programs, “forming coalitions of existing organizations and networks.” (211) I am pretty certain that the Center will not be interested in any type of coalition with a CCD, at least not in the beginning. I will not, however, share these doubts aloud in the community but send out only optimistic overtures to the community. I do have the support of many members of the town council and school board. I have close contacts also with the Jackson Center of the Arts and the Chestnut Creek School, two community-based art programs directly to the southwest and southeast of here.
I realize this is a long-winded response to the book, but I really felt a connection with hte material and my real work. Bless your little hearts if you made it through my entire response to New Creative Community. I would be interested to hear how any of you are developing any programs in your commnunity.

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