Five years ago at his grandmother’s funeral, Matthew Fluharty reflected on the value of rural culture and what he might do to help promote and enliven it. Today, the “Art of the Rural” project relaunches its online work with a more powerful website and bigger ambitions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This fall the Art of the Rural blog expanded to a full website with online cultural mapping tools, a story archive and reports on its work with partners around the country. We asked founder Matthew Fluharty to answer a few questions about the new site and the purpose of the Art of the Rural, which he describes as a “collaborative organization” whose goal is to “help build the field of the rural arts.”
Why are you relaunching the site?
I am really grateful for the first four years of Art of the Rural, and for the time spent on our former site. That said, a little over a year ago, around the time of the first convening of the Rural Assembly’s Rural Arts and Culture Working Group, it became clear that there was a need for a kind of site that could share a range of media and integrate all those forms more seamlessly.
The new site responds to those needs. Designer Nicole Irene has made a visually unique space, but also one that is uncluttered – and one that can load quickly in rural areas where internet speed may be an issue. As Nicole’s design merged with the visual work of Epicenter (out of Green River, Utah), I was elated. At last, it seems like we have a digital space that can effortlessly put together the rich and varied narratives we see in our communities and fields of interest.
What is the Art of the Rural and how did you get started?
Art of the Rural is a collaborative organization with a mission to help build the field of the rural arts, tell its stories and contribute to the emerging arts and culture movement across rural America. We try to connect our digital work to on-the-ground activities and events, and to keep what we call an “open cycle” in motion between those two kinds of knowledge.
We first began as a blog. The whole practice of Web 2.0 has influenced our design as an organization – we try to be as collaborative, open source and non-hierarchical as possible … and we recognize that that goal will always be a work in progress. That said, those early years of blogging taught me that the “process” was often as important as the “product,” and that lesson still guides our work.
The idea for the blog began in late 2008 and was catalyzed by an experience I had speaking at my grandmother’s memorial service in my hometown. For a few months previous I had entertained an idea like Art of the Rural, but had held back – what right did I have to create such a site? I was going to graduate school in St. Louis, not even living in a rural community. My grandmother was a journalist and a teacher, all the while helping to support our ancestral farm. We were very close, and I think the process of reflecting on her life – and wanting to make a contribution – led me to take the leap with Art of the Rural.
Rural America is culturally diverse. Do you see any themes or trends in rural cultures that rural people and places have in common?
This is a great question. I think, on the most immediate level, there’s a real ethic of resourcefulness and improvisation happening right now. While we’ve seen that quality nationally in the years since the Great Recession, there seems to be a number of folks who have harnessed those ideas to innovate and to engage with community in ways that are truly sustainable, to use an over-used term. I think that “the community” is becoming the imperative and the context for much of this work – and also a measurement of a project’s success or failure. There’s a great deal of discussion in the arts and culture community about the notion of creative placemaking; rural folks have been thinking this way for decades.
Art critic Clement Greenberg once said “the arts must be hunted back to their mediums.” That statement suggests the kind of break between Wyoming country boy Jackson Pollock and his mentor Thomas Hart Benton, and it predicts a kind of disconnected pathology we see in much of the mainstream art world. But, with that said, there’s a lot of rural work – across fields and cultures – that is “hunting back” something, bringing our more challenging histories to the surface.
Also, in general, we see an engagement with digital media – both to celebrate place but also communicate those necessary stories of dispossession, extraction, and inequity. Put simply: rural culture has never been more accessible to the national consciousness than it is right now. It’s an exciting cultural moment.
And, lastly: university engagement with rural places is expanding across the county, just as artists and cultural workers are themselves thinking about new forms of social practice. Many universities are changing, becoming more interdisciplinary, desiring partnerships beyond campus. They have a great deal to learn from the kinds of innovation happening in rural contexts.
Given all of these factors, I would say that a cumulative trend that is emerging — and that has transformed my work — is how multidisciplinary this whole conversation has become. From my perspective at Art of the Rural, but also as a writer and scholar on these issues, I would argue that this is a moment of profound opportunity. For too long our areas of interest have been shut off from each other, and that lack of a connective narrative is undoubtedly linked to the unacceptable gaps in access and equity we see in rural places. Rural sociologists have something to learn from public artists; arts administrators can benefit from the social and political vision articulated through the work of historians. This collaboration across disciplines is essential to the field of rural arts and culture, but is equally vital to how, on the ground, we come together to articulate a shared future.
Of all the different ways you could have chosen to work on rural issues, you’ve chosen art and culture. Why is cultural work so important to you?
Well, part of this comes out of being a poet and an essayist – that’s been the way that I have always first dealt with rural issues, whether it was having my moment of conversion halfway through reading Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill” or, more recently, coming to terms with the rural productive landscape in a more coherent way after encountering the writing of John Brinckerhoff Jackson. Arts and culture give us the metaphors and the imperative to communicate the value of our place.
While that may sound high-falutin or overly romantic, I think that it has real importance when it comes to rural issues and rural policy. Let’s choose any rural issue – say, the expansion of rural broadband. When we are making that argument to ourselves, we understand its importance. On a broader stage, especially with folks from suburban or urban areas that may know little about rural America, a vibrant and accessible cultural context is the agent through which a policy discussion transcends itself and connects urban and rural folks. We need a vigorous rural arts and culture discussion as part of our vision for advancing rural issues.
You’re trying some new digital tools. What are they and what do you hope to get from them?
Yes, the main operational reason for our redesign was to accommodate the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, which began last year through a Rural Digital Advocacy Grant and through seed funding from the National Rural Assembly. This project uses the PlaceStories digital mapping platform designed by Feral Arts – and open source, easy-to-use program that is designed to build community and enable outreach. Folks can add videos, postcards, photos, pdfs, audio, and just about every other kind of digital media imaginable.
As the new site gets up to speed this month, we will be sharing stories and projects from the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture each week. We are also deeply committed to helping artists, communities, and organizations begin their own projects. A PlaceStories map can be a great tool; it comes with a gorgeous embed option for websites and with plenty of ways to engage with social media.
We envision this map being not only a resource, but a road map to conversations and gatherings of all kind of formal and informal varieties – going back to Art of the Rural’s “open cycle” philosophy, we would like to offer this digital platform as a tool though which to inspire on-the-ground relationships. The West 100 to 115 project has already begun to bring folks from across the wide geographic sweep of that landscape together for conversation.
Beyond that, we now can present a digital space where folks can peruse books, watch video, learn about cultural events, discover new artists, and find out more about what’s happening across the country – and, importantly, suggest items for us to include in these individual features. This is our ultimate goal, to collaborate with folks from across the country and to learn from them.