Photo: Courtesy of Janet Kagan
Art-Force: Artists revitalizing rural manufacturing.
Janet Kagan: No two towns are alike. Every town has its own DNA based on their thumbprint, which is their own unique, authentic history. And while rural America, generally speaking, has its legacy in its generational memory, there are opportunities for embracing new ideas; which has always been how rural America was successful. It was always about innovation. It was always about going to the person down the street who's going to fix something that's broken.
Jo Reed: That's Janet Kagan--talking about one of the guiding principles of Art-Force, the non-profit that she heads. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. It is not news that many small towns across the United States are suffering as the manufacturing base has declined. The factories that remain open are often underutilized or in need of transforming or reimagining their production. That's where Art-Force comes in. The organization believed that artists and designers could and should be at the center of manufacturing renewal. In the past two years, Art-Force has partnered with three North Carolina towns to bring artists to the table to work with manufacturers to generate new products. This in turn would help to enliven the community both economically and socially. To find out more about this program and how it all worked out, I spoke to the co-founder and director of Art-Force, Janet Kagan. I asked her to explain the thinking the drives Art-Force.
Janet Kagan: We think of ourselves as civic curators. Art-Force is a non-profit, tax exempt organization, and we're dedicated to economically strengthening small and rural towns through creative invention and strategic alliances. Our paradigm-- which is about the placing artists as inventors, and that they by virtue of their inventions build local economies and create jobs, that jobs bond people to place, that creates and drives distinction and authenticity, and breeds new ideas.
Jo Reed: How did you come up with this idea?
Janet Kagan: For more than 35 years we've been working in interdisciplinary planning and design teams in collaboration with communities, artists and government. And one day a colleague was shopping for her garden when she discovered that the traditional North Carolina swirl clay pot happened to be designed in New Jersey and manufactured in Taiwan and then shipped back to this local North Carolina outlet. It occurred to us that America's small cities and towns desperately need our artists who are highly trained underutilized creative thinkers, visionaries, problem solvers to retool essential manufacturing and stimulate resurgence in rural cities and towns, because people live where there are jobs and feel a sense of belonging.
Jo Reed: And from not being able to find a traditional North Carolina pot that was actually made in North Carolina, you came up with the idea of reinvigorating a manufacturing base by putting artists at the center of it?
Janet Kagan: Exactly. America's economic history is indeed grounded in how product defined place; and we consider Art-Force to be a 21st century link and response to regenerating community wellbeing with core, authentic, sustainable vibrancy. And even today what we consider to be high craft or fine art was historically always a required skill for self-sufficiency in rural areas. There were clay jugs, hand-blown glass for windows, turned wood bowls for flour, weaving cloth reeds for fans and screens; the list is endless. And although perhaps more rudimentary processes than what we might experience today, success in rural manufacturing was defined and advanced by artisans and apprenticeships. And we just don't use that mentoring model hardly at all these days. Online classes and certifications have replaced historic and successful educational paradigms. So today's manufacturers translate those very artistic forms into technological platforms; ‘cause contemporary products, however artfully conceived they might be, are really intended for a broader market than just local, personal need. Our feeling was that rural manufacturing, to be competitive, had to learn how to specialize their output and embrace all those necessary tools, from CADD-- computer aided drafting and design-- programs to laser cutters, to stay viable and profitable.
Jo Reed: Its manufacturing and agriculture are two of the mainstays, and textiles of course, of North Carolina. And they've all been taking a great hit. So your idea was to take underutilized factories and pair them with artists?
Janet Kagan: Yes exactly. Our paradigm is a boomerang or a spin cycle, as we like to think of it, that puts creative thinkers at the center of the process to solve problems and push boundaries. And so to retool both jobs, careers and these small rural enterprises, we placed artists and designers in residence; and identified through careful research the communities that we wished to work in and those businesses, those small rural businesses, that would be appropriate. And we matched them based on historic core materials within the State of North Carolina-- so those were stone, textiles, and towns where specialty metals manufacturing were occurring.
Jo Reed: There were three towns that you were working in or are working in. One is Siler City, the other was Sanford, and then there was Greenville. Let's take Siler City because that I thought was a really interesting town and a really interesting experiment. Now how did you choose the manufacturers with whom to work?
Janet Kagan: We did a lot of research. We felt that it was very important to be able to identify communities where there was an initial investment of time, thinking, direction that they could bring to this project. So we were really looking at ways that we could engage with the community. In Sanford, for example, they had just completed a Long-Term Vision Plan.They were in the process of working on a new Downtown Master Plan; and the community had a very strong collaborative spirit that we felt we could begin to work with. Art-Force works in parallel and intersects with existing efforts. And the same was true in Siler City. They were in the middle of what was called a Small Towns' Revitalization Program, which was to bring the community together to discuss long-range planning and vision. And we felt that they would be receptive to a project like Art-Force.
Jo Reed: I'd like to talk about the towns specifically. And I'd like to begin with Siler City, which I thought had a really interesting experiment.
Janet Kagan: Indeed it was. It was a stone and aggregate flooring company, using resin and polymers as the base. And his dream was to take what is a two-dimensional output and make it a three-dimensional product. So we engaged two artists to work with him. One was an artist who worked in cast glass and the other worked in metal. Both were important form makers; and they produced for the factory illuminated lighting elements so that these could be placed in an interior or potentially an exterior context. And in the process of so doing, we developed new forms; that the material could actually be bent under heat and could be illuminated from within.
Jo Reed: And Siler City is a place that was really going through a big upheaval in terms of a demographic shift but also very, very depressed because of two chicken processing plants that closed and took with them a thousand jobs or so.
Janet Kagan: Exactly, exactly. It's a small town of about 7800 people; and we wanted to increase and sustain their current output. And in so doing, one of their larger employers was this small business. He started almost a decade ago and had finally ramped up to a point where he was now able to maintain a workforce of about 15; and the goal was to retrain in this new form making skill those very people. And if demand were of sufficient quality, then there would be additional jobs that could be created, or another shift that could get added. I would say that since the project-- we were onsite for almost two years-- there's a private developer who has decided to purchase some additional buildings that were vacant and start an artist colony; and the very manufacturer with whom we worked has retained a local artist to be his own project manager for the development of new products. And in a workforce training session that we had with other area artists, he invited them all to come and prototype new work of their own and to prototype new work using his materials.
Jo Reed: Siler City which is really a small town has an art gallery in its downtown named the North Carolina Arts Incubator Gallery. That was impressive.
Janet Kagan: It is. It was started several years before. And they're still going well; and there is a hub that exists for creative artists to come and produce work. So we felt that we could draw on their strength. at the end of our work in Siler City we hosted a month-long exhibition open to the public at their gallery; which would be to share the prototypes that had been produced by the artists through this process.
Jo Reed: And there also is a civic art component to this.
Janet Kagan: Yes. We felt that there was an important educational underpinning to the work that we were doing in these communities. And we thought it would be wonderful to be able to have a physical tangible demonstration of the alliance between the artist and the manufacturer. In Siler City we produced as a prototype about a dozen of these light forms that were then up and down Main Street. In another community there was a permanent work that was created using sheets of steel, six by eight feet, that were the first table components, that had been laser cut out of these steel sheets and placed in bright colored powder coat on a new greenway that they had. And we had another permanent work in Greenville that was on the side of a building out of the textiles that were used during the residency.
Jo Reed: Well I asked you about the manufacturers and what their sense was when you approached them about this project. What about the artists?
Janet Kagan: They were enthralled; and they thought it was fascinating. The dimensions where the complexities emerged had to do with how each thought; and they think very differently. Artists are very protective of the time it takes to work through an idea, translate it into a form, test it, evaluate it: Does it have an aesthetic dimension that they could call beauty? Small manufacturing is all about efficiencies, scale, profitability. These are the dimensions in which not everybody is speaking the same language or adapting to each others' processes. So as project managers, part of the challenge that we faced was to begin to bring people together in dialog; and we did this many times throughout the project. And we even brought together all of the teams working so that-- over a day-- so they could share their own strategies, their own thinking, learn from each other, so that they could go back to their communities and find strength from the work that they were doing. And in fact we were able to potentially partner two of the manufacturers-- the manufacturer in Sanford and the manufacturer in Siler City, they were going to assist each other on their own product development with the artists that we had engaged.
Jo Reed: Can you just walk me though a little bit of what that facilitation was like?
Janet Kagan: We were working as frequently as we could verbally and onsite. We produced a lot of visual documentation; and we had one and two-hour long design reviews with both members of the team, to work through ideas, to discuss market research, profitability, how best to design and then manufacture along the an assembly line process.These projects are not for the faint of heart.
Jo Reed: It sounds like, especially for the manufacturers, that they really have to be willing to take a chance.
Janet Kagan: They do; and they each had a dream that they wanted to accomplish. We interviewed many manufacturers in each town before we settled on the ones with whom we established a relationship. And each of them had something different that they wanted to accomplish; and we felt that partnering the artists with them would be the appropriate response. For one, in Siler City it was to go from two dimensions to three. In Sanford, they did a lot of specialty metals fabrication that was invisible; and they wanted to brand something with their name. And in Greenville, the textile manufacturer has an established 30-year reputation in developing canvas products; and he was really interested in extending the reach into a more contemporary response. Half of his business is online and in Asia. And we partnered a Taiwanese textile artist with him; and she produced a series of contemporary handbags and baskets, which for him represented a completely new market.
Jo Reed: Greenville was very interesting to me because it was quite different from both Siler City and from Sanford. It's both an academic and medical hub. There's a university there and a medical school there.
Janet Kagan: Indeed there is. ECU, Eastern Carolina University, has a very strong textile and arts program. Pitt County, which is where Greenville is located, is the eastern hub for all of North Carolina medical facilities; and Pitt County is right on the cusp of determining whether or not it is a rural county any longer. When we were working there it was. But there has been tremendous growth in the county as a consequence of the last couple of years. So for our project in Greenville, we engaged their Arts Council to join with us in helping to establish a protocol whereby artists could begin to be trained, and then partner with other small businesses. And we received from them one of the nicest compliments about the work. We held meetings in their offices; and they said, “You enabled us to look at our community from outside of the bubble from which we normally engage.” And we were thrilled. They are now looking at ways to more significantly create a permanent public art ordinance. We produced a work that was in public space across from their farmer's market. This was what they needed to advance their own internal policies, to commission artists to do more permanent public work.
Jo Reed: Art-Force, this program of Art-Force, has been going on since 2012; so that's two years, which gives you a lot of time to be able to see what you've accomplished. But what do you foresee after the granting period is done? What do you foresee in these three places?
Janet Kagan: We are monitoring longitudinal data that is important for Art-Force to follow. So that's everything from building and sign permits that are being applied for and issued. We're monitoring demographic changes and shifts; and we're also looking at tax base and how that may have changed based on rezoning. So we are continuing, and will for the foreseeable future. It's important also to remember that change in small towns can occur over a three to four year period; but for transformation to occur is a decade to 12 years. And we need to be able to be conscious of that at all dimensions of how we think about the role that our ideas, our programs, our funding can support.
Jo Reed: What has been the most challenging part of this program?
Janet Kagan: One of the most challenging dimensions is that many speak of economic development or resurgence; and it's typically a focus on build it, or let's create tax breaks or incentives, or let's attract creative's to come and move into our towns. But there's really not one panacea that substantively is more effective over multiple generations. And so the challenge at one level is that there are foundations and public agencies that certainly desire more immediate turnarounds than the decade we just discussed. And the pace with which ideas are born and explored and fundamentally implemented really varies significantly between urban, marginalized and rural communities. And what Art-Force tries to do is tap into its national and international perspectives of what is possible, and translate that into a local level at the street. And that has to sync with finding those communities that are- that are ready, that have tried. We've been using an expression called Are You Creative Ready? And there are dimensions to that creative readiness that are important to assess in order for these kinds of crosscurrents to be successful and effective.
Jo Reed: Give me an example of how you might assess creative readiness?
Janet Kagan: We look at the cultural, social, physical and economic histories that each community has; or identifying traditions and values. We meet with civic leadership. We walk the streets. And we are looking in that space between what is at one dimension very analytic, at another very intuitive, to see where design thinking has a place. And so we know that environment influences behavior; and we want to emphasize not just the listening to what people are telling us-- which is very important-- but we also think it's really time to start looking and seeing what is happening. What have you tried before; what kind of risk are you willing to take; where have you made previous investments; and what is the kind of entrepreneurial activity that this community has; and have you generated it from the ground up or have you imported it from the outside in?
Jo Reed: As you've worked on this project, what surprised you?
Janet Kagan: What surprised me the most was that the outcomes were nothing we could have predicted. What struck us the most profoundly was that this one rural manufacturer decided to hire a full-time design director to take the work that had been prototyped and developed and create new product lines off of it. Another, as in Siler City, as we discussed, decided that he would open his shop to other artists to come in; and hired an artist as his project manager for those enterprises. And in Sanford, they have completely redone their thinking about the kinds of products that they want to put their name on, and decided that their experience creating these works of civic art opened them up to opportunities for bidding on wayfinding projects and signage, things that they had never considered. And I don't think anybody walking into these models would have said these were the outcomes. I was so excited and enthralled that this is where these projects ended up, and that these individuals and their businesses now have another opportunity to stay successful.
Jo Reed: Art-Force is hosting a conference in September called Crosscurrents. And the full name suggests you're expanding your focus to include agriculture?
Janet Kagan: The focus for Crosscurrents, Art and Agriculture: Powering Rural Economies, is about how in rural America, which predominantly has agriculture as its heartbeat, how can we begin to think about engaging artists? As we did in manufacturing but in that context. So we will be exploring what practices exist to build the entrepreneurial skills of both artists and farmers? So we're-- we want at this conference to be able to address new opportunities for them, new ways to think about apprenticeship programs, artist residencies in the culinary arts, agripreneur training, rapid prototyping, innovative industrial design. We're also evaluating-- back to your question of creative readiness-- what is the creative infrastructure that exists? What are those physical organizational and social infrastructure components that can support these kinds of sectors; and what are the models that exist. How do we repurpose buildings? How do you develop a community alliance? How do you organize a food hub? We're looking at the history of rural innovation and creativity. So what are those assets to build on that can create viable economic opportunities? And we will also have a panel discussion and a two-plus hour workshop on attracting investment and philanthropy, telling your story, that will have ArtPlace America and the NEA, along with community foundations and private philanthropy.
Jo Reed: In 10 years-- as you said, it takes a decade in rural communities for real transition to occur. One could argue that's also true for non-profits. Where do you see- where do you see Art-Force in 10 years?
Janet Kagan: Thank you for asking that. Art-Force has the ability to rethink the kinds of crosscurrents that put creative thinking at the center of that spin cycle. So we are exploring, in our own fearlessness, ways to potentially take an equity position in some of the work that we're proposing. It would one day be wonderful to see a highway sign that said: This is an Art-Force community. And we are looking at ways that we can begin to connect small businesses across areas and look at broader community in a more regional context. And so we are also evaluating how can we come into a community and identify the local support that's necessary, creative support that's necessary, so that these enterprises and these organizations can continue to thrive?
Jo Reed: Janet, thank you so much for giving me your time, when I know how busy you are. I really appreciate it.
Janet Kagan: Thank you for your interest and all the work that you do.
Jo Reed: That's co-founder and director of Art-Force, Janet Kagan. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, 2013 National Heritage fellow, Seamus Connolly
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.