Changing the Conversation: An Interview with Theresa Cameron from Americans for the Arts

Road sign for Pittsburgh’s cultural district

[Editor’s Note: This article is the continuation of a series we are calling “The State of the Rural Arts” — reflections, interviews, features, and online installations that will seek to articulate the historical context surrounding this question while also expanding our common understanding of who, and what, constitutes “the rural arts” in contemporary America. These investigations sprung from the imperatives that emerged from The Rural Arts and Culture Working Group.]

By Savannah Barrett

Theresa Cameron is a rural girl at heart. Raised in Wyoming, she studied music performance at the University of Wyoming before working with the Evanston local arts agency and consequently receiving Governor Appointment to the Wyoming Arts Council. Now the Local Arts Agency Program Manager for Americans for the Arts, Cameron continues to serve rural arts communities across the nation by providing guidance and resources to local arts agencies: “I try in all of our work to make sure we’re inclusive of not only the very large communities, but rural and small communities, which often times are much more interesting and more robust than the things that are happening in very large communities.”

Cameron’s work at Americans for the Arts focuses on professional assistance programs for more than 5,000 local arts agencies, particularly in the areas of programming, business advancement, and board development. Often times the field considers Americans for the Arts to be a research and advocacy organization with little relationship to grassroots arts organizations, but she works with these small organizations at the root:

“Americans for the Arts does so many different things at the national level and I try to think about and to distill all that down and look at the community at the local level. The more that we can look at the work we’re doing and how it distills down so that communities can use it, the more we can help communities make the case for the arts at the local level.”

In addition to nearly five years at Americans for the Arts, she has considerable experience enlivening small communities through local arts agency management in both Wyoming and Maryland. While Executive Director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, Maryland, Cameron wrote the state legislation for Arts and Entertainment Districts in downtowns which resulted in an Arts and Entertainment district in every Maryland county. She also developed Creative Montgomery, a county-wide cultural planning process, and managed an economic impact study and asset mapping process for the region that counted more than 1000 artists and 400 arts organizations in Montgomery County. Consequently, she and her staff grew the local arts agency’s granting pool by millions:

“Once people knew that (the local cultural assets), we were able to take the plan and create a path so that our small and mid-sized arts organizations would get more services and accessibility for more funding… We grew a $400,000 grant pool to about $3-5 million grant pool. I was really proud of that. It brought the community together; it really got organizations talking to each other; and got the local officials understanding that we had a lot of diversity and a lot of different organizations around the county. You just need the numbers: if you can show how the arts really do transform communities and return on investment, people understand.”

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Street scenes from Cameron’s hometown of Laramie, Wyoming

Theresa credits much of her success in Wyoming and Maryland with an ability to change the conversation. As she explained, “I think that goes back to the whole thing of how people define what art is and what happens in a community.” Cameron identified some of the most pressing policy challenges for rural arts organizations to include changing the paradigm when it comes to the traditional rural policy platform, advocacy at the local level, and lack of funding for state arts agencies. Local advocacy can not only help to amend laws, but can also entice legislators to augment arts and cultural funding at the state level.

There’s an old way of doing rural work in the United States, and the way national rural policy leaders have addressed rural issues in the past typically hasn’t included an arts platform. Cameron stressed the necessity of cultivating understanding of the role of the arts in community advancement:

“We have to demonstrate how the arts are central to a lot of things that are happening within rural communities, and that it is a way to redevelop and a way to keep people in places, and a way to provide more tourism opportunities for these small places… If you don’t get these people who are holding the cards to think a little bit differently about how they can use the arts, it just won’t occur to them.”

Cameron’s Arts and Entertainment district legislation helped to shift the way local politicians thought about the arts, as not only entertainment but as catalysts for community development:

“If we have laws that don’t address artists and small businesses, how can we look at those and change them, how can we look at different kinds of financing mechanisms and teach our arts organizations in rural areas how to access them?… Especially in rural areas, people will follow the money and/or the opportunity, and if it’s just a simple one line that says that this re-development money can be used for artists in the project, that might be enough to get people thinking.”

By changing the conversation, arts advocates can not only affect legislation, but can also influence the state’s allocation of resources in support of the arts. While the National Endowment for the Arts still allocates funds to every state, state governments across the nation are reducing their support for arts agencies. Theresa emphasized that although the lack of a well-supported state agency influences the arts ecosystem as a whole, these state level cuts most dramatically affect rural areas.  As she explained, state governments need to take ownership of their own cultural enlivening, and understand that state and local support is essential to the arts in rural areas: “States themselves need to value the arts as an important piece of what their work is as well.”

Rural arts and cultural organizations are often geographically separated from the arts administration field. Distance from a consortium of arts managers, from professional development opportunities, and from corporate and philanthropic support often renders rural arts organizations more reliant on state arts agency resources than urban organizations.

“The decimation of state arts funding really affects rural areas the most, not only because of access to professional development, but also because they are often more reliant on state funding. They got a lot of their funding from their state arts council, and when they (the agency) loses funding it impacts rural areas A LOT more because as you know there are not as many people to ask for money. Unless there’s a bank or a rich board to seek resources from, the state arts agency is your lifeblood.”

Effective advocacy is essential for rural arts organizations.  Communication that relates the holistic value of the arts to community and economic development at the state and local level can be particularly effective in demonstrating how investment in the arts can stimulate improvement across the community. As such, creative placemaking has rapidly advanced as a key component of the argument for investment in the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts explains creative placemaking as “public, private, not-for-profit, and community sectors partnering to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”

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Gov. Martin O’Malley and members of Maryland Citizens for the Arts when the Gov. received the Arts Leadership Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors

When asked about placemaking as a growing arts management trend, Theresa explained that this amplified recognition is the result of years of successful creative placemaking stories from communities nationwide. Local arts agencies have been doing creative placemaking forever. Small communities especially are always creative in the work that they do, because it’s just inherent in the way they do their work.While creative placemaking may not be a new concept, growing dissemination of the practice’s effectiveness continues to inspire Cameron:

“I used to think the arts could be a part of the component of re-inventing a community, but now I think they are the main driver. Because of the kind of economy that we’ve moved into, I think the creative sector is a really important piece of the economy.”

Theresa mentioned that she could identify a great example of local arts agencies successfully using creative placemaking in every state in the nation, but offered the following as some of the brightest examples of local arts organizations making a big impact:

  • The Allengheny Arts Council: “They work with the department of economic development and tourism in that city to attract new businesses and artists as a part of their artist relocation program. It’s in the Allegheny Mountains, which was very depressed as a result of losing all of their industry, and they’ve been able to totally change that town around: they do a ton of programming, they don’t have a ton of money, but they’ve really been able to develop this community and give this community a lot of pride.. I believe that most of the stuff that has happened in that town is due to them.”
  • ArtsPlace: They have three different facilities in small towns in very rural areas, and place instructors for doing art programming in these towns, they do a lot of artist services and a lot of wrap around services. They get some funding from the state but mostly they write grants, and have been very successful.”
  • Beet Street: “They started a project called air, for artists and entrepreneurs in the inter-mountain region. It’s this whole creative training program for artist and entrepreneurs to develop this arts incubator of the Rockies.  They’re working with the whole inter-mountain region to develop this arts incubator of the Rockies.”
  • Ink People: “They’re in a really small place… but really serve that region and do a lot of community engagement work and really utilize the arts for all aspects of community development.”
  • Northern Lakes Center for the Arts: “They have this fantastic business model, because they took up the community newspaper… Newspapers are going away, but people there really wanted to be able to gather information in that format, and of course the newspaper charges subscriptions and they use that as a revenue model.”

The Seers perform at Streetmosphere, a program of BeetStreet in Fort Collins, CO
Photo Credit Alina Osika

The connection between all of these organizations has been their ability to address the whole community through programming that extends beyond their facilities and into their schools and downtowns: I think that if you look at a community that is successful, one of the big components of that community has to be arts and a sense of pride that the arts create.”

Moreover, an organization should identify the assets already in operation within the community and nurture inclusion for those artists and arts organizations: You need to identify what you already have in your community, and provide support for your arts organizations, your folk and traditional arts, you need to invite people to come together and really value what you already have initially, and then add things in.” Theresa commented that some of their other commonalities among the above mentioned organizations include visionary leadership, which is often the result of one or two dedicated staff members, as well as their ability to locate and attract opportunities to grow their organizations and their impact:

“I think they all take advantage of opportunities, and no one can tell them “no”… All of them are just like: “we’re going to do this, we’re going to make this happen, and we’re going to honor our traditions, but also add some new ones to that. I think that the common thread that makes them all really successful.”

“In all of these examples, these people know their communities really well and are willing to try anything and collaborate as much as possible with non-traditional partners. They see the value in the quality of life that they have in these small communities, and they want to keep that.”

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Cameron skiing near her family’s cabin in Alpine Lake, WV

These examples not only exemplify model rural arts organizations, but demonstrate how the arts have enlivened small communities all across the nation. To read more from Theresa Cameron, access her entries from the Americans for the Arts’ ArtsBlog.

[Author’s Note: All direct quotes attributed to Theresa Cameron, are taken from a transcribed interview conversation between Cameron and Savannah Barrett that took place on March 8, 2013. For questions, please contact the author. ©Savannah Barrett, 2014.]