In his introduction to the University of Wisconsin’s landmark 1967 “Arts in the Small Community” study, program director Robert Gard wrote:
“If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art… let us start by acceptance, not negation – acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as large; with money or without; according to the will of the people.” (http://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/ArtsintheSmallCommunity.pdf)”
Gard’s assertion that a region’s drive towards self-expression will find an outlet whether modulated or not still feels revolutionary these nearly-fifty years down the line. It has become almost fashionable to believe that the efforts necessary to prioritize art in the Midwest would be too difficult and expensive, and to insist that the intellectual fields have either gone fallow or that the ground was never all that fertile in the first place. While it’s sometimes satisfying to feel so put upon, this attitude ignores that the potential for a more broad-minded and open approach towards the role of art in rural places crackles like an electric current through every one of our daily interactions.
Using art processes as instruments for encouraging unexpected and novel interactions with familiar people, places, and ideas is not a new notion in the discipline, but here in the OTA region, artists have only recently begun to explore the positive impact they might have by facilitating social engagement through collaboration with audiences rarely involved in the creation of “art” as it is traditionally understood. By approaching the act of relationship-building between individuals, neighborhoods, and cities as a question of design, the artist’s toolkit of critical thinking, problem solving, and intentionality can be applied to fostering meaningful cultural cooperation and evolution based not on some fantastical ideal of "community," but by helping to uncover at the very roots ideas that have been waiting to emerge from those specific desires and resources as are actually present in each community. Perhaps the end product is an oral history archive of Midwestern foodways or a public conversation about institutional racism in the Plains States. Perhaps what is needed is a concrete plan for a neighborhood bike lane, or a mural honoring one hundred and twenty-five years of local enterprise. What “wants” to emerge will look different for every situation, and it is the artist’s adaptability which will allow him or her to respond with eagerness and curiosity to the unique variables at play in each new challenge.
It has been said that all great innovations are inevitable, that given the occurrence of enough seemingly disconnected events, there can be no alternative but for the lightbulb to be called into being. For artists to broker such a dialog as will acknowledge those diverse and innate creative approaches within us all allows the opportunity for thoughts and opinions that might otherwise be shouted down to blend with others to create novel solutions for complex issues. And artworks, those documents of our constant processes of "becoming," will flourish, too, in ways that will alter the visual and conceptual landscape of our region for generations to come.