The Art of Community
The Art of Community
Spring 2015 brought big news to six rural counties in southeastern South Carolina: they had received a federal Promise Zone designation. The Promise Zones program is intended to help challenged communities have a better chance of winning federal funding to improve housing, education, economic vitality and a host of other conditions. Susan DuPlessis of the…
Rural South Carolina
South Carolina Arts Commission; Counties of Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Berkeley, Chester, Colleton, Hampton, Jasper, Marion, Newberry, Pickens, and Richland; and York/Catawba Indian Nation
Public Funding Includes
U.S. Department of Agriculture: Rural Development cooperative agreement
U.S. Department of Agriculture: Rural Business Development grant
National Endowment for the Arts: State Partnership Agreement grant
National Endowment for the Arts: Folk & Traditional Arts grant
State of South Carolina: State budget allocations
South Carolina Department of Education: Education Improvement Act funds
Spring 2015 brought big news to six rural counties in southeastern South Carolina: they had received a federal Promise Zone designation. The Promise Zones program is intended to help challenged communities have a better chance of winning federal funding to improve housing, education, economic vitality and a host of other conditions. Susan DuPlessis of the South Carolina Arts Commission (SCAC) attended a series of stakeholder roundtables. She listened to the discussion of opportunities and challenges in the communities and considered how to harness the energy that arose when the conversations turned to an arts and culture based perspective. DuPlessis quickly realized two things. Her first realization was that it did not feel like the right role “for someone sitting in an office in the state capitol to be imagining things for a place I didn’t live.” The communities needed to drive the initiative. Her second realization, however, was that the small rural communities of the Promise Zone did not have the level of capacity needed to apply for and manage large federal grants to accomplish creative placemaking.
“When this opportunity with the Promise Zone first came up, my first thought was to work with the communities to try to go after a [National Endowment for the Arts] Our Town grant,” DuPlessis said, “but it very quickly became apparent that all of the things you need to be competitive in the Our Town category, we didn’t necessarily have.” At a minimum, the communities would need greater staff capacity and more advanced financial management systems than they had. Then DuPlessis had the idea for a different approach: what if the South Carolina Arts Commission acted as an intermediary, leveraging its own organizational capacity to apply for and receive funding on behalf of the communities and letting the communities lead the way in determining what they need and what they want to do? That is how Art of Community: Rural SC was born.
“If we are going to talk about the strategic use of arts and culture, it needs to be about the people and the place, not the South Carolina Arts Commission,” said DuPlessis. Her first act was to identify “mavens”– local connectors and champions – from each of the six counties. SCAC asked each maven to build a team with local people “who love their community and want to be at the table, but aren’t necessarily the ones at the table making decisions,” DuPlessis explained. Each maven was charged with assembling a community based team to brainstorm together to identify a specific community challenge. Together they would then develop a plan to use arts and culture to address it.
Through the South Carolina Arts Commission’s existing statewide relationships, DuPlessis was able to meet with leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development office. She made the case for the importance of arts and culture as a vehicle for economic development and community vitality and convinced the agency to support the initiative in the six communities. She secured a $20,000 cooperative agreement to begin to build the Art of Community: Rural SC framework (cooperative agreements are similar in nature to grants, but require “substantial involvement” on the part of the agency). SCAC gave small grants of $1,000 to the six counties to start their work. “Sometimes they had to find a fiscal agent to even obtain the funding,” she recalled. “We were very flexible in working with them and loosened the laces a bit to listen to what mavens said the communities needed in terms of arts and culture.”
For example, Hampton County Maven Audrey Williams and her community participants focused on a nature trail in the town that no one used. They envisioned it as part of a larger health and well-being strategy. They wanted to beautify the trail with picnic tables and flowerpots, which is not a typical project for the South Carolina Arts Council, according to DuPlessis, “but we listened to what the community said it needed and provided it, letting go of some of the strictures we have created ourselves that may make people feel like our arts funding is not for them.” That original activity laid the groundwork that led to a monthlong artist residency two years later. The artist worked with the community to devise and install “creative stations” along the trail to encourage more people to use it. “We don’t start with arts and culture in our conversations, she said. “We start with home, what makes you belong, what do you have that you’re proud of?” Creating common ground and learning together, she added, are hallmarks of the initiative. Mavens and teams continue to build upon their original projects, include more strategic partners in their planning and fine-tune their local stories of place through presentations and documentation.
Since inception, the South Carolina Arts Commission has continued to seek funding to support the initiative, including: a $50,000 USDA grant to support the mavens in each of the six counties; a $24,000 USDA Rural Business Development grant to build a component of the program called CREATE: Rural SC supporting creative professionals; National Endowment for the Arts Partnership, Folklife & Traditional Arts funds to support local folklife projects and development of the Art of Community Folklife Field School; South Carolina Humanities funds to support the Communal Pen Writing Workshop series; and funding from South Carolina Department of Education to support summer arts learning camps in two of the communities. The Arts Commission also pursues foundation grants and other private funding. While part of this funding supports the community-devised projects, the Arts Commission also uses it to build leadership capacity at the local level.
The original six mavens have now been joined by peers from eight additional counties and one tribal nation. The South Carolina Arts Commission brings the group together regularly to learn from one another, practice telling their stories and document their work. SCAC’s long-term goals for Art of Community: Rural SC are to build capacity for communities themselves to obtain grants from major funders. The program also seeks to help the mavens and their comrades recognize their agency to make change, even if they do not hold traditional positions of power. It aims to empower them with understanding of how to use arts and culture to make that change. The Arts Commission explored these topics in a Meet the Mavens film.
The initiative has changed how the South Carolina Arts Commission works in local communities and it has changed how the agency approaches its budget. It now asks for and secures greater funding from the state, said DuPlessis. “We realized as a state arts agency, we weren’t serving the whole state, so we did something different.”