Art of the Rural: A Short History

By Matthew Fluharty, Director of Art of the Rural

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. We now 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.

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