By Kelsea McCrary
One thing that any arts-related person, either employed by or volunteering for the field-at-large, can agree on: artists play a role in society. Cliché, right? This summation fails to encompass the complicated relationship between how vital and yet how often overlooked creative professionals are when it comes to our cultural and societal preservation, growth, and collectively held futures. There have been so many words and intellectual jargon wrapped around this concept, this need, the gap that may exist and how to fix it, that I won’t attempt to recreate any of that. What this piece will do is give you an overview of some of the moves being made in Louisiana, along with a challenge to you to take up the mantle in your own communities and charge forward.
The program I oversee for Louisiana’s Office of Cultural Development in the Division of the Arts is a creative place-keeping program using arts and culture as economic development tools and community development assistance. States don’t often have statewide programs within the arts that facilitate this with the exception of the many different types and sizes of grant funds that are out there. With communities looking to move forward; grow; retain talent; attract new talent; preserve their histories while also interpreting it all appropriately for their present; safeguard and perpetuate traditions; along with so much more, arts and culture provide a space where individual identities aren’t compromised but are instead woven into a mosaic that strengthens every component of life. But what does this have to do with economic development? Or the role of the artist?
Let’s use board development as an example (quick side note: you’re going to want to check out Revitalize Or Die when you have a moment). The discussion about building out a healthy and diverse group of folks typically revolves around community members that can actively contribute either through time or dollars; won’t be dead weight, miss meetings, or fail to answer emails; hold positions helpful to the overall mission; and (hopefully) work well together. In many of these conceptualized “board rooms,” artists are simply not at the table. They might be used, engaged, or employed to complete whatever projects or vision this board has in mind, but many times they are not initially involved in the planning.
I’ll say it plainly: this has to change. In Louisiana, we are changing it.
So, what type of work are we talking about? Where does the artist/maker need to be included? Developing public art plans. Networking within government structures to build relationships so that projects can happen and happen quickly. Saving historic buildings to activate them into productive spaces. Getting people together in a room for the first time in a long time. The cyclical nature of this Good Work will always repeat itself, because there will always be this type of work to do and new people to include in it and inactive folks to engage with again. You dream it, it can happen. So, then what? How do we quantify the growth and stats that result from these collective actions? How do we identify data and metrics that can prove the worth of incorporating them when it comes to unwieldy forces like arts and culture? What role can an individual artist play in these lofty topics? The Big Question: How do you even start?
Louisiana is known for many things, and the 106 current Cultural Districts showcase the best of these. You can find any of the major highlights of our arts and culture landscape within these cities, towns, and neighborhoods. But not all communities are eating beignets for breakfast and snatching beads out of the air by lunch. Our creatives in these communities reveal the diverse cultural depths of the region each is nestled in, pulling out treasures and tragedies that have shaped the unique footprint of all of the people, products, and places that we’ve called home for hundreds of years. They are preserving buildings, asking hard questions around development, getting together to sustain language and dialects, training new artists, honoring traditions, and constantly and consistently and (possibly most importantly) producing. These Cultural Districts are in all stages of this type of work, and they do it in 106 individually beautiful ways. The strongest of them have recognized and elevated their creatives to a position equal to that of any other contributor, and it shows.
But guess what? If there isn’t space for you, create some. Creatives, listen up. Assume your role. Take your position. This past year, spending time with visionaries like Jamie Bennett from ArtPlace America, Pam Breaux of NASAA, and artist/educator Xavier Cortada of Cortada Productions out of Miami, along with so many others from our own state like Jonathan Foret of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma, Brian Davis with the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, Grammy winner Sean Ardoin of Lake Charles, Tori Davis of Ruston Main Street, and award-winning visual artist George Marks of Arnaudville, has cemented the call to arms for artists and makers alike: get in formation! Queen Bey was talking to y’all, and to all of us makers. Your job – dare I say it, your calling – is to use your particular skill set to help the community where you’re currently living and creating in order to see life, possibilities, issues, and victories in the same revolutionary way that Technicolor changed black-and-white television.
Artists and makers new to the game: no connection is a bad connection. Get out of your studio or apartment or day job and meet people. Learn who your local, regional, and state arts organizations and advocates are and what they are up to. Creatives that are burnt out and tired: find a new passion project. Train, don’t just execute. Speak and teach and lead. Ask questions. This work that we are doing is an exciting and lovely jumble of skill sets, backgrounds, dreams, and know-how. Communities truly need and require everyone, because nothing can be accomplished in a silo. If you’re wondering how the body of paintings you’re frantically trying to finish for a show next month plays into this overall patchwork of economic development and community growth, look no further than the attendees to that show. They will drive there (gas), they will probably eat or drink before or after (supporting the local economy), they will buy a piece of artwork (sustaining the creative economy), and they will most likely engage in another activity or event that is clustered around the same time as your art show. This domino effect is something that you can trace in your own patterns of activity and then use as a tool to show how these individual actions roll up into a vibrant and successful Place.
A few of the success metrics we use to judge the effectiveness of our program center around buildings and sales of original artwork. But the best practices that our districts exhibit and strive to accomplish go much further than these two numbers. Some things you can keep an eye on in your own community are:
- Efforts contribute to the public’s education and awareness of arts/culture
- How the work changes the economy, business community, occupancy rates, jobs
- Community identity formation, exploration, promotion
- Strategic partnerships, starting with public-private but going further than that into innovative relationships
- Inclusive cultural planning and sustainable environments for artists to produce within
- Accessible events and venues
There’s so much more, but the great news is you don’t have to do this alone! Pick something that resonates, and go with it. To quote one of our newest Cultural Districts, “If a place is worth living in, it’s worth working on, for, and within.” So, let’s be about the work.
Kelsea McCrary is the director of Civic Design and the Cultural Districts Program for the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development.