Integrating the Arts into Our Downtowns
Several months ago, I had a brief conversation with someone about integrating “the arts” into rural communities. For a quick technical definition… “the arts” are a range of human practices of creative expression, imagination, and cultural participation for aesthetics or practical use. Think of painting, sculpture, music, theater, literature, and many other forms of individual expression. I take the viewpoint that cities in urban areas and towns in rural areas require two different approaches. That brief conversation centered around why outside funded projects typically fall short in rural towns. In urban cities, there are many examples of single donors making large contributions for projects that are embraced by the community. However, in more rural towns, projects put forward by outside individuals or even their own municipalities many times loose the support of the community over time. So the question was posed… How are we able to gain support for projects in rural towns and how can the arts be incorporated into more of those projects?
As with most things, my answer came quickly but then found a place in my thoughts for the several months that followed. On that day the answer was simple. In a rural town, a project must have grassroots support and local funding to succeed. Us rural folk don’t tend to react well to our municipality directing us, much less outside donors or programs. That’s not to say that those in urban cities react well to those type of things, but many times those subtleties can get lost in the larger population. And while it needs to be a much more nuanced answer than that, it’s simply the fact that we don’t like being told what we should support. When I’m told I should be spending my time at the local museum or concert venue, I’m less likely to do so simply because it was somehow expected of me to be better than I am. In a smaller population, those small details in the delivery of a project are vital to the project’s success. There are plenty of exceptions that can be made for this and, as mentioned, it’s much more nuanced than a one page article will allow.
Now to the point of why I write this… I believe we need to have more grassroots supported projects in our downtowns that help cultivate the arts in our communities. Projects that we can be proud of together. Projects that can be the catalyst for individual and community expression and enjoyment. Projects that will continue to positively impact our communities for generations to come. And in order to achieve this… Projects that do not solely benefit one individual, business, or group that expects us to partake. Consider the quote from Mark Twain… “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. Positive and negative impact can be viewed similarly. We unfortunately now live in a world where negative impact can come instantly from just one comments section on social media but positive impact can take years to cultivate. Many of our downtowns have been ravaged by time and negatively with many approaching more the levels of ghost towns than thriving communities. While there are several South Arkansas downtowns that are doing well, there are many more that have fallen beyond the years of restoration that would be needed to bring them back to life. And those that are doing well can remember plenty of times over the last few decades where the empty storefronts were all too common. Let us keep that as a reminder moving forward because it can quickly happen again.
With all these thoughts in mind… I’m looking to do my part. Through Project SOUTH ARchitecture, I’m starting a project in my office called “9BLKS”. It is a look at the core nine blocks of the downtown areas of multiple communities across South Arkansas. We’ll be recognizing the needs of these downtowns and looking to integrate “the arts” into new projects to grow these communities. Let’s be clear… no one has come to me for this project. The client is the community and the compensation is the good it could do. We’ll be reaching out to leaders and stakeholders in these communities to recognize needs and address them the best we can. In the end if we can simply provide a little inspiration for continued grown in these areas, it would have been worth it. Let’s see how it goes…