The North Carolina Arts Council has released a draft plan for the arts over the next four years and is seeking public input through an online survey. The document that results will be a new strategic plan to shape the future of NC arts for the next four years – 2015-2019.
If you think this is just a bureaucratic requirement that doesn’t connect to your daily arts experience, you should think again. Whether they are called councils or commissions or something else, every state has an agency dedicated to administering state funds for arts, culture, and creativity. And the strategic plans guiding those organizations say a lot about the current perception of art’s role in society and what ways of spending public funds on art and culture are valid and valuable.
The draft plan released by the NC Arts Council has four goals:
- Invest in North Carolina’s Arts and Culture (by strengthening the artist workforce, supporting great arts organizations, and shaping the Grassroots arts program);
- Fuel a Thriving Creative Economy (through cultural tourism, arts-based economic development, research on the impact of the Creative Economy through research, and a new collaborative initiative with DOT);
- Prepare Students for Successful Lives and Careers (through the A+ Schools program, arts experiences in schools, and support for arts in education policy);
- Lead to Ensure a Strong Future for the Arts (by increasing private and public support and new funding streams, increasing awareness of arts’ importance, and increasing the field’s capacity to embrace diversity).
I’ll say more about how this compares to other states below, but first, here’s a link to read the report in full, and a link to provide feedback when you’re done. You can not only comment on the strategic plan, but also weigh in on the Arts Council’s services (including what you’d like to see) and share your favorite art activities. Whether you work in the arts, participate in your local arts scene, are a student, or just an interested citizen, it’s your chance to be heard.
In 2008, Julia Lowell wrote a monograph for the Rand Corporation called “State Arts Policy: Trends and Future Prospects.” She makes two predictions, one about the future focus of state arts policy and the other about the kinds of activities in which state arts agencies will engage.
“If current trends and strategies continue, future state arts policy is likely to focus more on developing the creative economy, improving arts education, and encouraging a broader spectrum of state residents to participate in the arts. To achieve these goals, state arts agencies will likely become more involved in policy advocacy, coalition building, convening, and gathering and disseminating information than in grant making.”
Lowell refers to those agencies already developing and employing these strategies as “forward looking.” In that case, we citizens of North Carolina have been fortunate to live in a state with one of the most forward looking state arts agencies around. The NC Arts Council was connecting arts and culture to economic health and growth two decades ago. And many of the resulting initiatives have built on folklife and heritage arts, including the Blue Ridge Music Trails, Cherokee Heritage Trails, and African American Music Trails. NC Folk supported each of these projects through discovery research, interviews, or other documentation but they were the brainchild of Wayne Martin, now the Arts Council director.
And, just as Lowell predicted, succeeding at these kinds of projects requires collaborating more closely with other state government agencies. A note to community organizations: If you think it’s challenging to collaborate with a major bureaucracy like a governmental department or university, you should try doing it from within! Yet Martin’s opening executive summary highlights some of the NC Art Council’s partnerships with other departments, including commerce, tourism, and public instruction.
In these and other ways, our state’s art agency seemed to be have been prescient, anticipating the realities of today. If we have realized Lowell’s 2008 predictions, has the future arrived across the country, or do some states lag behind? And what will the new future trends be?
I did a quick search of state arts councils online, focusing on those states with a history of supporting folk, traditional, and community arts. Some have just released new strategic plans in 2014 or 2015, including California, Kentucky, Maryland, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Some states are right in the middle of their strategic plan period, while others have plans that are being revised now or due for review, including Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Utah, and Virginia.
Former Arts Agency Plans Had Three Main Goals
Older plans, created from 2010-12, usually include three main goals. They want to support arts and arts in education by providing grant funding. They want to increase visibility or awareness, either of arts and culture in general or of its public value. And they usually say something about building arts infrastructure or connectivity. Occasionally a plan has a greater emphasis on arts in education or on the role of advocating for the arts.
NEW – More than Grants
This older emphasis on grant-making jibes with Lowell’s 2008 Rand Corporation report, which says,
In the past, SAAs [state art agencies] considered their primary mission to be the financial support of their states’ artists and nonprofit arts organizations. Through a competitive process, they awarded grants to those they considered the best.
Strategy 1: Grant-making
Strategy 2: Policy & Advisory
Strategy 3: Partnerships & Programs
Strategy 4: Information and Communications
Strategy 5: Training & Professional Development
NEW – Advocacy Role
Other states echo South Dakota’s new emphasis on advocacy or policy impact. California’s first goal is not only to build public will but also resources for the arts, ensuring “strong support for the arts statewide among the public, elected officials, and decision makers.” One of Wisconsin’s four goals is to “insist upon sufficient resources and smart public policy to ensure that these goals, valued by the public, are achieved.” Tennessee’s goal of being “A Champion of the Arts” includes articulating “the role and significance of public funding for the arts and culture in Tennessee” and informing “public policy relative to the arts.”
North Carolina’s draft plan continues our arts council’s leadership in terms of strategies — it is not adding tools such as intra-government and public-private partnerships, technical assistance, localized art funding, and research, but has been engaging in them for years. The plan specifies seeking “increased legislative funding for programs that demonstrate public value, ” but it explicitly mentions policy only once; under the goal of preparing students, the arts council wants to “influence policy to advance the role of the arts in the state’s education systems.” Of course, there are many ways to influence policy; for example, NC Arts Council grantees are asked to write their representatives to explain the value of their funded work. Do you think state arts councils should have a formally stated advocacy or policy advisory role? Or does this have potential to undermine the more collaborative approach that the new emphasis on partnerships requires?
NEW – Strategies to Realize Equity
- Ensure the arts council’s work is reflective of California’s diverse populations and accessible to all (California 2014).
- Encourage equitable access to artistic experiences statewide (Maryland 2014).
- Raise the standards for access and inclusion in the arts (South Dakota 2014).
This goal is certainly not new, but there seem to be more attempts to figure out ways that work to achieve it. Specific strategies deserve their own blog post, so watch for that at a later date. But one connection arts agencies have made is that struggles in communication, network-building, and collaboration relate directly to diversity and inclusion outcomes. The NC draft plan includes several specific strategies, including convening advisors from diverse communities and offering training on designing accessible art experiences.
NEW – Arts for Life
A new trend in recently adopted strategic plans is a shift from “arts in schools” to “art for lifelong learning.” This may be a recognition of the demographic shifts in many areas that combine young people with record numbers of seniors. Or it may relate to a growing understanding of how cultivating creativity — not only in kids but in the work force and seniors — benefits society. This might be a good thing for NC to note.
- Cultivate creativity through lifelong arts education (Maryland 2014).
- Champion lifelong learning that inspires imagination, creativity, and innovation (Wisconsin 2015).
- Advance the arts as essential to learning. In year 2: Challenge South Dakota cultural organizations, artists, and community leaders to provide lifelong learning opportunities through the arts (including earmarking funds for early childhood and older adult learners). (South Dakota 2014)
NEW – Tourism and Economics
Newer plans tend to echo NC’s current draft arts plan in their emphasis on tourism and the creative economy. This is no surprise, considering that the National Endowment for the Arts most current slogan is “Art Works.” Many arts agencies have felt the need to demonstrate art’s value in dollars to stay in business themselves. Current examples:
- Employ the arts as drivers of creative economics and placemaking (Maryland 2014).
- Assist Wisconsin communities to engage the creative industries in sustainable community and economic development (Wisconsin 2015).
- Position the arts as essential to South Dakota Tourism (South Dakota 2014).
- Creative industry and Entrepreneurship (Kentucky 2015).
However, there has been some recent pushback on the economic justification for the arts; Just yesterday the Asheville Citizen-Times quoted economist Ann Markuson: “The arts community has made a mistake when the only argument it puts forth is an economic-development one.” While understandable, not only in the current economic and political climate, but also because it’s frankly easy to prove, Markuson suggests advocating for the value of other contributions art makes, including beauty, insight into other cultures, and preservation.
Is it possible her views could lead to a new trend in arts agency policy down the road? As most plans last 3-5 years, we may have to wait a while to see. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the states adopting new plans in the next few years will follow the current trends. So economic development seems likely to be a major official raison d’être of art for some time to come.
How Does Folklife Fare?
Speaking of cultural preservation and insight into other cultures, where does that leave folklife? One of Wisconsin’s 2015 goals is to “encourage all in Wisconsin to live vibrant expressive lives by affording them opportunities to connect to the rich heritage of Wisconsin and to explore their individual creativity” (emphasis mine). Ohio’s strategic plan expired in 2013, but in its existing plan the first major theme listed as emerging from its listening tour was “Heritage & Culture.” The plan adds, “A tremendous “pride of place” is present in most Ohio communities. Arts and cultural organizations, artists, history, architecture, natural resources, parks, historical and waterfront districts, and other unique community assets are all seen as essential aspects of how the community views itself.” The resulting objective of preserving cultural heritage appears under the goal to Protect Ohio’s Quality of Life. While not specified in the goals, one of the four guiding values of the Kentucky Arts Council is preservation of cultural resources –
The Kentucky Arts Council believes that the arts and cultural resources of Kentucky are key to understanding our heritage, and that honoring the past will help build our future. Recognizing that knowledge of our history will help build our future, we support identifying, documenting, conserving and protecting the cultural resources of the state, including:
- Artistic works
- Cultural traditions
- Historic sites
- Historic structures
Folk and traditional arts gets its own section in Maryland’s 2014 plan under the goal to Honor and Support Maryland Artists (an interesting location!) –see inset at right.
And under Tennessee’s 2014 goal to achieve Thriving Tennessee Arts and Culture, the plan specifies:
Preserve and promote Tennessee’s heritage, cultural diversity and folk arts.
Identify, document and promote Tennessee folk artists, community traditions, folklife practices and traditional arts, including both older rooted traditions and those of more recent ethnic and immigrant communities.
Increase public awareness of and scholarly access
to the wealth of Tennessee folklife program archival records.
It seems that most state arts agencies feel folklife and traditional arts are important, but they may have trouble figuring out where we fit. Is supporting folklife about honoring folk artists (MD)? Part of the general arts and culture landscape (TN)? Related more broadly to quality of life (OH) or an overarching value (KY)?
Compared to these examples, folklife and traditional arts are not thus foregrounded in the NC draft plan. However, this may not be a bad thing. Rather than being pulled out as a separate bullet point, the living and historic traditions of our state are mentioned under each goal in the plan:
- Honor the lifetime achievement of master traditional artists through the NC Heritage Awards. (Goal: Invest in North Carolina’s arts and culture.)
- Expand the NC Arts Trails program. (Goal: Fuel a thriving creative economy.)
- Expand the Traditional Arts Programs for Students (TAPS). (Goal: Prepare students for successful lives and careers.)
- Through the African American Heritage Commission, increase the sustainability and awareness of the state’s African American artistic traditions and resources. Provide funding and training through our Folklife Program to help communities document and sustain their diverse forms of cultural expression. (Goal: Lead to ensure a strong future for the arts.)
What do you think? As gratifying as it is to see formal articulations of a state art agency’s appreciation of folklife, is it perhaps better — and more accurate — for it to appear throughout a strategic plan? We certainly would argue that folklife is indeed inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the state and inextricably related to other aspects of the arts landscape. Successful heritage tourism must be rooted in the specific context and stories of a place (all of which must be documented). Local history and heroes can develop the pride in place that contributes to student success as well as to greater population retention for rural areas. Documenting, supporting, and helping programmers understand traditional arts will help ensure that North Carolina’s art experiences reflect and are of interest to all our diverse communities.
So I will hope that folklife’s role in NC arts is not limited to the examples provided in the plan, but that the plan instead reflects the ongoing appreciation for the diverse cultural heritages of the state that has been a hallmark of our arts council since its inception.