Speak Your Piece: The Extractive Arts

The arts industry ships young people out of rural areas as if they were timber or coal, destined for big cities and the benefit of urban audiences. We should create more ways for our artists grow and create locally.

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Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, refutes “the claims of too many politicians that the arts are the province of the elite in big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles.”

As evidence to the contrary, Kaiser, writing in the Huffington Post, provides a list of famous artists who hailed from small, non-coastal towns: opera singer Leontyne Price from Laurel, Mississippi; ballet dancer Ethan Stiefel from northern Wisconsin, where his dad was (gasp) a prison warden; choreographer Twyla Tharp from Portland, Indiana; and playwright Terence McNally from Corpus Christi, Texas.

Why, he concluded breathlessly, “the list goes on and on!”

The problem with Kaiser’s argument is that none of the artists he mentions stayed in their community or even in the states or regions where they were from. They all left and went to the “big coastal city” of New York, just as the anti-arts politicians said, where they entertained the elite, also like the anti-arts politicians said. Kaiser hasn’t, in fact, refuted their beliefs in the least. More importantly, while the artists he mentioned achieved renown, many, many others from similar small towns followed the same path and saw their talents go unappreciated and their gifts unnoticed, talents and gifts that would have added so much to their home towns.

This is the extractive creativity economy in action.

Like clear-cutting a forest or blasting the top off of a mountain in order to send wood and coal to urban dwellers, the American arts system extracts artistic resources in the form of talented young people and tells them that the only place they can make a living in the arts is New York City. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a major lie. Let me use a statistic from my area of expertise, the theater, to make my point.

According to the annual report of Actors Equity Association, the union for American stage actors, last year their members’ median annual income from theater sources was zero, because 58% of Equity actors were never employed in the theater at all. Think about that for a second: 58% didn’t make a dime. Knowing this, how can young performers take seriously the advice they receive to head to New York, even though many of them don’t want to? But the mythology is strong.

My point isn’t that theater (or dance or painting or music or…) is a lousy way to make a living – why should the readers of Daily Yonder care about that? My point is that, given those dismal facts, shouldn’t we be teaching our talented young people the skills needed to practice their art in places other than New York and Los Angeles, in places that are starving for the arts, maybe even places like their own home towns?  After all, the bar is pretty low – if you sold tickets to your friends and family you would make more money than did 58% of the so-called professional actors.

Students give a recital at the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in Amery, located in northwest Wisconsin.

How would interest in the arts improve across the country, and even in the legislature, if performers put down roots in a place they loved, built a life there and created art that reflected the stories, the songs, the dances, the colors, the shapes of their chosen town? What if the arts world was more like a local farmer’s market, filled with products that grew organically from the dirt, rain and sun of a particular place? What if, like local farmers, local artists found a way to make a living within the context of their specific place, rather than within some generic model created for somewhere else that wastes 58% of what it grows? And why can’t those places include rural areas, where people are just as interested in being entertained and enriched?

One might look for prominent examples to Michael Fields and the people at Dell Arte in Blue Lake, California. There’s also Dudley Cocke, Donna Porterfield and Ron Short at Roadside Theatre in Whiteburg, Kentucky (and the entire Appalshop organization, for that matter). Less prominent, but perhaps more important, would be organizations like Stage North in Washburn, Wisconsin, a vibrant organization in a town of slightly over 2,000 people, whose activities include a new play each month, a film festival, musicians, lectures, movies and dances. Not far from Stage North is the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in Amery (also under 3,000), led by LaMoine McLaughlin, and supporting everything from theater to music to poetry and photography while also publishing a monthly local newspaper. 

Scott E. Walters
 These organizations provide not only employment for artists, but facilitate the abundant creativity of the towns’ residents.

Creative people are needed everywhere in our nation, not just in a few major cities. Let’s quit exporting our creativity and instead bring the arts back home.

Scott E. Walters is founder of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education and a professor of drama at University of North Carolina at Asheville.

 

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