As a digital platform, Art of the Rural elevates the rural arts field by facilitating rural-urban dialogue and cross-sector exchange. On the ground, we cultivate an organic manifestation of the digital mapping process by engaging the field in conversation, encouraging partnerships, while also activating participation in rural cultural policy and programming.
Art of the Rural is a collaborative organization with a mission to help build the field of the rural arts, create new narratives on rural culture and community, and contribute to the emerging rural arts and culture movement.
We work online and on the ground through interdisciplinary and cross-sector partnerships to advocate for engaged conversation and policy that transcends imposed boundaries and articulates the shared reality of rural and urban America.
Art of the Rural considers the aesthetic, cultural, and historical foundations within the field as a necessary prologue to the current conversation. We believe rural America stands at a unique intersection between the traditional and contemporary, and we are committed to documenting this complicated inheritance.
A two-fold mission guides Art of the Rural. While our digital projects offer multiple outlets and platforms for engaging with the dynamics of rural arts and culture, we are also committed to connecting those resources to the lives and the experiences of a range of communities. We believe digital media can collapse the geographical distance that has long separated rural people from themselves and their urban partners, but that such technology must work to bridge human relationships through events, programs, publications, and the creation of collaborative communities.
Through these interconnected forms of engagement, we cultivate what we call an open cycle: our digital material informs our physical programs while feedback on the ground guides our online work. By way of this philosophy, we view Art of the Rural as an evolutionary project, vitally dependent on the collaboration of multiple communities.
Art of the Rural: A Short History by Matthew Fluharty
The groundwork for Art of the Rural began in December of 2009, when I stood before friends and family in my Ohio Valley hometown. Folks had gathered on that rainy afternoon for the memorial service for my grandmother: a woman who taught many of those in the room high school English and Journalism, and like many in rural America, had tirelessly served the community while also working to sustain the family farm.
When I addressed the assembled group, I saw a room full of people over the age of fifty, with a few younger faces — her grandchildren — who had traveled from distant cities to pay their respects. Outside, a once-vibrant main street sat in the purgatorial state it had inhabited since the county’s schools were consolidated, since jobs left the region, since that common rural litany of social and economic hardship visited the community.
For much of my life, I had experienced that psychological bind that characterizes the rural diaspora: that quality of feeling deeply, inextricably linked to my land and culture, yet, by virtue of seeking education and employment elsewhere, also feeling equally disconnected and powerless to help the place and people I care the most about. The difficult process of standing before those folks and reflecting on my grandmother’s life clarified an imperative, one first expressed across the faces of those in the room, and later in their own words as they shared their stories: I needed, in whatever form possible, to shape an element of my own work after my grandmother’s sense of determination, responsibility, and improvisation.
A few hours later, I sat in the woods on our farm with my brother. In that space, I shared the basic idea of Art of the Rural, a concept I had been thinking about for months but had lacked the courage (or some might have said the foolishness) to execute: what if there was a website that connects the dots between the various forms of art and cultural work taking place in rural America? My dissertation focused on rural arts in the age of modernism, and I was hungry, and at times desperate, to understand how that lineage of creative work was connected to contemporary practice in rural communities. About a week later, the Art of the Rural blog humbly began.
It is hard to comprehend how far the field has come since the internet dark ages of 2009, when a simple search did not reveal a wealth of material on the American rural arts (a majority of the online material was from Europe). Many organizations operated rudimentary websites with little social media integration or video associated with their vital work. The comparative gaps in equity and access we find in rural America were glaringly obvious through a Google search. Even today, one can execute an image search for “rural art” and immediately understand how far we have yet to go in presenting a more diverse and nuanced argument for this work.
However, we are now in a cultural moment when digital media is beginning to catch up to our aspirations. At last, the rural periphery can assert its place within the center of our national and international conversation. It has been deeply exciting to observe how this more user-friendly internet has provided the space to share the essential work coming out of rural America — and it should feel like a confirmation to all of us that many organizations and national leaders are seeking to celebrate and collaborate with this new rural arts and culture movement.
Art of the Rural has come a long way from its days on Blogger. Through the experience of helping to convene the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group, and through the work of coordinating the digital Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, we have been guided by a belief that an analog practice must inform and emerge from this online work. Now, as an arts organization, we seek to create programs on the ground that can take advantage of internet resources but also transcend them — and make this work meaningful to folks across rural America.
Though the format and mission of Art of the Rural has gained in complexity through the expertise of our collaborators and advisors, the imperative I felt in the presence of my grandmother’s legacy still guides our work. Revitalizing our main street and changing perceptions of cultural inferiority in my region are far larger projects, but they can’t begin — and they certainly can’t succeed — unless we gather in a space and work to understand where we’ve come from, where we are, and how we can best progress. In its own small way, I hope that Art of the Rural can help serve this function for folks across rural, urban, and international places. On behalf of all our staff and collaborators, we’re grateful to be in the room with you.
WHO WE ARE
The Art of The Rural staff is comprised of the next generation of rural Americans: those who have stayed, those who have left, and those who have returned.
We recognize that “rural arts and culture” is not the sole province of individuals born and raised in a place census officials deem “non-metropolitan.” All of America has a stake in this work. Art of the Rural operates from an understanding that a great deal of the art, culture, and policy surrounding rural issues emanates from beyond its geography — and we encourage participation with our colleagues both in urban America, as well as in international locales.
We believe that hierarchical thinking often works to the detriment of rural America. Thus, Art of the Rural functions as a decentralized, collaborative organization. Whether working individually, or in consortium with partnering groups across the arts and culture landscape, we operate within a network of cooperation and cross-pollination:
Polly Atwell is the Fiction Project Steward. She is the author of the novel Wild Girls (Scribner 2012). Her short fiction has appeared in journals including Epoch and Alaska Quarterly Review, and in the anthologies Best New American Voices and Best American Mystery Stories. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Cal Poly State University.
Savannah Barrett is the Program Director for Art of the Rural. She was raised in Grayson Springs, Kentucky, and holds a Masters Degree in Arts Management from the University of Oregon with a concentration in community arts. Savannah is a passionate advocate for arts access in geographically and economically isolated places, and has recently published academic research relating to the rural arts programs of the Cooperative Extension Service.
She contributed her enthusiasm to the Kentucky and Oregon arts communities for the past ten years, first in high school as a founder of a local arts agency in her hometown, and most recently as the Education Manager for the Louisville Visual Art Association and the facilitator of the Oregon Folklife Network / Lane Arts Council collaboration to form a Culture and Education Alliance in the Eugene area.
Matthew Fluharty is the Executive Director of Art of the Rural and Editor of the AOTR site. He is the son of a fifth-generation Ohio Valley farming family and has resided across the midwest, northeast, and Ireland. Matthew holds a PhD in English and American Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis, where he wrote on the concept of “rural modernity” across transatlantic art and literature. He is currently researching, writing, and engaging in course design around the topics of land use, the vernacular, and the rural-urban diaspora.
Matthew’s poetry and essays have been widely published in the US and abroad. He has been grateful to share his work, and the practice of Art of the Rural, at gatherings across the country. Matthew serves on the Board of Directors for the M12 art collective and is currently a Research Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in Saint Louis, where he has also collaborated with the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art.
Kenyon Gradert is the American Culture Studies Project Steward. He is a doctoral student in English at Washington University in St. Louis with research interests in religion and philosophy, romanticism, and the Frontier within nineteenth-century American literature. He was raised on a third-generation grain and cattle farm in northwest Iowa where his immediate and extended family continue to live, mostly as mechanics and farmers. Currently, his little brothers and father poke about the blackest dirt in the Midwest and, when crops are in, fly over it, cropdusting in their magnificent, yellow Air Tractors.
Jennifer Joy Jameson is the Folklife Programming Project Steward. She is a Nashville, Tennessee-based folklorist/ethnographer (MA, Western Kentucky; BA, Indiana) and Highlander Center-trained cultural organizer, specializing in the sustainability of folk and traditional arts, and in the utilization of community arts toward progressive social change. She has worked with museums, archives, festivals, and arts and cultural organizations on the federal, state, and local level, and has taught folklife studies and English courses at Middle Tennessee State University and Western Kentucky University.
In 2012 Jennifer founded the Nashville Folk + Free Skool, a grassroots organization dedicated to facilitating accessible arts, cultural and agricultural programming led by and for Nashvillians. Her work is motivated by a practice which prioritizes the holistic and sustained well-being of the expressive communities and individuals with which she partners.
Rachel Reynolds Luster is the Founding Project Steward in Vernacular Arts. She was born and raised in Arkansas and now lives in Couch, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains. She is a folklorist, fiddler, librarian, and community organizer, and her work focuses on addressing the holistic health of her home county through land-based cultural and economic initiatives. Her publications include the co-edited Anthology of Arkansas Folksong, several entries for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, and a biographical sketch of one of her folklore heroes, Mary Celestia Parler, published in both the Overland Review and in An Anthology of Arkansas Women’s Lives.
She facilitates the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op and is the Myrtle Librarian at a rural outpost library of the Oregon County Library System. She is currently working on her dissertation, an exploration of the application of principles of ecology and restoration biology to cultural practice and the methodology of cultural workers.
- Michele Anderson: Rural Program Director of Springboard for the Arts
- Jennifer Armstrong: Director of Community Arts Development Programs for the Illinois Arts Council
- Caron Atlas: Director of the Arts & Democracy Project and co-director of the New York Naturally Occurring Cultural District Working Group
- Polly Atwell: Fiction Writer, Professor of English at Coastal California University
- Theresa Cameron: Local Arts Agency Services Program Manager of Americans for the Arts
- Dr. Barbara Ching: writer, editor and Chair of the Department of English at Iowa State University
- Dudley Cocke: teacher, writer, media producer, and Director of Roadside Theater
- Maryo Gard Ewell: Community Arts Development consultant
- Dr. John Fenn: Assistant Professor and Media Management Coordinator of the Arts and Administration Program at the University of Oregon
- Matthew Glassman: Core-Actor and Co-Director of Double Edge Theatre
- Lance Ledbetter: Founder of the Dust-to-Digital record labe
- Dr. J. Michael Luster: Director of the Arkansas Folklife Program
- Nikiko Masumoto: Peach farmer, writer, and performance artist
- Mimi Pickering: filmmaker and producer at Appalshop, and Director of Appalshop’s Community Media Initiative
- Dr. Lisa R. Pruitt: professor of law in the Martin Luther King, Jr., School of Law at the University of California, Davis; editor of the Legal Ruralism blog
- Jesikah Maria Ross: educator, mediamaker, community cultural development practitioner, and Director of The Art of Regional Change at University of California, Davis
- Nathan Salsburg: musician, curator of The Alan Lomax Collection at The Association of Cultural Equity
- Chris Sauter: writer, editor and visual artist
- Richard Saxton: Assistant Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado, and Director of the M12 art collective
- Jesse Vogler: installation artist, Director of the Institute of Marking and Measuring, Visiting Professor at the Sam Fox School for Design and the Visual Arts, Washington University in Saint Louis
Do you have ideas on artists, organizations, places, or issues that should be discussed on Art of the Rural?
Do you have a perspective or a piece of writing/ media that would fit with our work?
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• “The State of the Rural Arts: Crisis, Change, and Opportunity,” video of a panel discussion including agrarian artist Nikiko Masumoto; Stephen Gong, the Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media; Caron Atlas, Director of Arts & Democracy; Carlos Uriona, Co-Creator of Double Edge Theatre; and Katharine Pearson Criss, Senior Fellow of the Center for Rural Strategies