In its annual Arts Vibrancy Index, published in September 2020, SMU DataArts wrote of “communities hungry to come together again and affirm existential meaning after prolonged isolation, trauma, and polarization.”
The Index, which examines the complex arts and culture Ecosystems that make communities thrive, acknowledged the complete upending of the arts world in the wake of Covid-19. But it insisted that by sharing what was working pre-pandemic, communities would have the opportunity to learn from each other’s strengths as they looked ahead.
One shiny, hopeful finding was this: “No part of the country has cornered the market on arts vibrancy. Every region of the country has vibrant arts.” But which of the nation’s small communities topped the list as most arts-centric? That would be The Jackson Micropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which encompasses two counties (one in Wyoming and one in Idaho) that radiate out from the town of Jackson.
Home to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, a 78,000-sq-ft Center for the Arts, The Grand Teton Music Festival, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, and more, this region, with a combined population of 35,606, has set itself apart as an arts powerhouse.
While the Index provides a valuable way to explore what communities such as Jackson MSA are doing right, Jessica Gelter, executive director of Arts Alive!, a local arts nonprofit in the arts-rich Monadnock Region of New Hampshire, worries that some parts of the conversation are still missing.
For instance, one of the big questions her organization has focused on recently is: Who is getting access to the arts and who isn’t? In 2020, Arts Alive!, which nurtures creative businesses, artists, and cultural institutions, conducted a survey, randomly intercepting people at a range of local arts events, from paid shows to free community movies.
Excited to review the raw data when she got it back, Gelter found that something immediately stood out. The numbers were quite evenly divided among income brackets. “But our community is not evenly divided,” she said. It quickly became clear that the people facing the most economic challenges did not engage with the survey.
“It seemed to show that not everybody is getting access to the arts equally,” she noted. She and her organization are now looking more deeply at the layers, including insights brought to light by the recent social justice reckoning.
“We are recognizing that the arts have work to do in welcoming all community members and that it’s important to do so,” Gelter said. As a follow-up, Arts Alive! also conducted a loneliness study within the community, a national topic that has only been heightened by the pandemic.
“Loneliness has all these physiological implications for individuals,” Gelter said, listing off heart health, lung health, and the way we store fat in our bodies. This is not even to mention the mental health ramifications. “Our study looked at ways that arts can connect people…It’s looking at building relationships with community members that will keep coming back.”
Though over the last decade the conversation around creating and nurturing the arts has focused heavily on economic benefits in an argument to attract and retain funding, Gelter said she believes “priorities are shifting.” It has become increasingly clear there is a deeper current at play.
So how does a rural community go about fostering a healthy, accessible arts community that benefits everyone? Gelter posited that it’s a delicate mix of intention and organic growth. “This work is really most possible and viable when you’re able to bring artists together and let their creative ideas grow the arts community,” she said.
Wary of the potential pitfalls, she pointed to classic tales of cities where gentrification forced engaged artists out, breaking up the collectives that created the valued vibrancy in the first place. She also gave the example of a New England college that spent millions of dollars to transform itself into an unrivaled venue for artists. “But you walk off the campus and it has done very little for the downtown,” she said.
So, there must be room for artists to lead the way. However, at the same time, it is usually difficult for them to rally together in rural places without an arts council, service organization, or communal arts space. That place, space, or advocate could be unique depending on the locale.
“It doesn’t have to be ‘aht,’” Gelter laughed. Maybe it’s the local VFW because there’s already an open mic night. Or maybe there’s just something about that small, downtown gallery that gets people jazzed.
Gelter suggested surveying local artists and art tour participants in the existing community to find out where the energy is already flowing. To help create a useful survey, she recommended visiting artiststhrive.org to explore their rubric, which, she said is “a great way to assess how helpful a community is being to artists.”
Now is an excellent moment for artist voices to be heard as rural regions envision their way out of the pandemic. “I think a lot of communities are starting to realize that intrinsic value,” Gelter said.
Perhaps an even more nuanced arts ecosystem awaits.
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 22-23, in Keene, New Hampshire.