Tuesday, August 18, 2015

3 Things the NC Visiting Artist Program Can Still Teach Us

Every shaded county had both a community college and a Visiting Artist.
So, on the one hand, I am totally in awe of the Visiting Artist Program, which ran from 1971 to 1995 here in North Carolina. The program was a collaboration between the fledgling NC Arts Council and the Community College System, then under the Department of Public Instruction. With a lot of moxie and limited resources, these groups were able to place over 330 world-class artists from all disciplines into each of the 58 community colleges across the state at the time. Since the goal of the community college system was to make an "affordable, excellent post-secondary education available within commuting distance of every North Carolinian," the Visiting Artist Program--with its inherent stipulations of community service and continued artistic growth--meant that "each citizen in the state was also within commuting distance of a professional artist (and vice versa) and free, open-door arts programming that resident artists delivered."

I mean, can you IMAGINE such a program today? The VAP PAID artists, provided housing, gave them room and time to focus on their art. The artists were also mandated to be in the community--the vast majority rural--providing workshops, master classes, hands-on demonstrations, engaging school-age populations in classical music, drama, playwriting, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and everything in between.

Today, we can't even get school systems to agree NOT to cut basic arts education classes.

And yet, on the other hand, how many local artists/local culture was overlooked or not given estimation because the "Professional Artist" was there? Look, I understand that what we really need is both. That artists who are university-trained and artists who simply picked it up along the way are not necessarily better than each other. That communities need both: to celebrate (or hang on to) their own local (indigenous) arts/crafts/music/culture* and to see what else is out there, what else is possible. And MAYBE even where those two things can learn from each other.

Found this book at my local library in Carteret Cty,
which is still home to at least 2 of its Visiting Artists.
There are three clear things from the 20 years that the program ran well (the last few years saw only a handful of artists, due to mortally-wounding gashes in the appropriations in the legislature):

1. There was a time in NC that we were ahead of the pack, both artistically and educationally. 

We had leaders at all levels--from state senators and representatives to local community college presidents and all the arts councils--who understood the INTRINSIC VALUE OF ARTS TO A COMMUNITY. That simply breathing the same cultural air, being exposed every day, having the art imbued in the neighborhood was beneficial to the community.

2. The very nature of the expectations of the working artists still impact NC today. 

In my own field of theater, looking at the list of Drama/Directing/Playwriting Visiting Artists, there are so many who remained in NC. They resuscitated or formed out of whole cloth new theater companies or performances that are indelible to what the theater community is today across the state. To name but one of many: Haskill Fitz-Simons, long-time and beloved Artistic Director at Raleigh Little Theater, was the first Drama Visiting Artist at Vance-Granville Community College.

And I'd imagine that all of the other artistic disciplines can recount similar stories. The public art in communities, the pride of place that bubbles over in residents when they talk about such things, so many of these are direct outcomes of the VAP.

3. No one can accomplish this artistic immersion alone. 

Try as we might. This program took the time and talent of so many people. It was truly a mini-system functioning in the greater cultural eco-system here in NC. The set-up through the community colleges; the screening by the state arts council; the community hosting with the local arts council; the sponsorship by the local community coordinator; the advertising throughout the country for artists; the residents welcoming in the artists; the artists willing to take a chance to help not only themselves but also a new home.

Today we struggle to get our arts message heard over a million different causes, each of them good and honest and important in their own right. Add to that the number of people who won't hear above the din of the television and the people who simply haven't been given a reason to care, and it makes arts advocacy that much more difficult.

At one point, everyone in the state had a reason to care. If it happened once, I have to hope it can happen again.

*Yes, I do realize that "culture" is a lot more than artistic expression.

Friday, August 14, 2015

New Home: Literally

We moved over the course of May & June to coastal NC. I'm also working on a new website and trying to find a paying gig. All of that to say, pardon the blog-radio silence at the moment.

You can always find me on the social networks (all under my real name) for the latest doings/beings/thoughts/goings-on in the Theater & Relationship worlds.

I've finished literal unpacking, but I'm still working on the metaphorical unpacking. There's more baggage there.