Art for All Americans: the NEA's Rural Arts Initiative

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A man in a striped shirt and white pants, laughs, while crouched on a stage surrounded by four children of various ages.

Musician Phil Baker enjoys a laugh with students in a concert in Clear Lake, South Dakota, as part of the 1989 Touring Arts Teams, a rural arts initiative funded by the Arts Endowment. Photo courtesy South Dakota Arts Council

1989For more than two decades, the National Endowment for the Arts focused on bringing the arts to underserved communities - including minority and inner city communities - through its Expansion Arts division. With the development of the Rural Arts initiative in 1989, that focus expanded to include rural communities. The initiative was designed "to assist rural arts organizations that have considerable potential to develop artistically and administratively." State arts agencies received grants of up to $40,000 - to be matched 1 to 1 by the state arts agencies - designated for use in supporting between two and five rural arts organizations.

The Arts Endowment's leadership in this area enabled many of the state arts agencies to expand their existing rural arts initiatives or develop new ones. Projects supported under the Rural Arts initiative included Virginia's artist residency program in rural community colleges, Idaho's Arts in Rural Towns series for touring and presenting arts events and presenter training in communities with fewer than 5,000 people, and Oklahoma's self-directed study and practice guide for older adults to help them use their personal experiences to draw and write.

In Arizona, the Arts Commission initiated the Tribal Museum program in 1991 to assist the state's many Native American tribes in documenting and preserving their culture. The assistance offered by the Tribal Museum program ranged from professional development training to the convening of forums in which members of different tribes could discuss their cultural needs and concerns to assistance with the physical design of museum sites to the hiring of consultants to help with issues such as the development of a board of directors. The Tribal Museum program also focused on integrating the tribal museums into other Arizona Commission on the Arts programs including arts-in-education and the multiyear Organization Development program.

The many successes of the Tribal Museum program include the June 1991 opening of the Ak-Chin Him-Dak, the tribal museum of central Arizona's Ak-Chin tribe and the first nationally recognized ecomuseum in the United States. A museum staff member explained its importance saying, "The Him-Dak is here for the elders of our community to bring what they know to the young people, then the young people will know how to carry on the O'odham way of life."

Although the Expansion Arts division no longer exists as a separate discipline, the Arts Endowment continues to make bringing the arts and arts education to rural areas a priority. The agency serves these areas through partnerships with state, local, and regional arts agencies, such as the Idaho Commission on the Arts, which brings Idaho writers and their literature and craft to rural Idaho audiences. Many rural communities also benefit from the NEA's folk and traditional arts grants, which support projects such as traditional arts apprenticeship programs. Rural areas also are served through national initiatives, such as Shakespeare for a New Generation, which brings live theater to many students who would otherwise not have access to the arts, and American Masterpieces, a multi-year touring and arts education project that will bring the best of the country's cultural legacy to small and large communities nationwide.