“I’m not aware of too many things
I know what I know, if you know what I mean”
With this refrain, Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians began the song “What I Am,” an anthem for simplicity, honesty, and common sense that has helped me in both my personal and professional life since I was a teen. (And yes, I know I am dating myself, and I am happy to own my middle age.)
As a staff member of the Tennessee Arts Commission, I’ve assisted people from rural places with packaging their hopes, dreams, and aspirations into proposals that anticipate skeptical questions and outline the community benefits to be achieved. It’s my job as a grants administrator and steward of public dollars to think how to economize and get the largest return from small investments, since our grants often represent a fraction of the funds raised for any given constituent’s project or operational budget. What makes my job rewarding is that I work for a state full of incredibly talented artists and administrators who continually innovate and show me how to squeeze grant dollars for every ounce of public value possible.
My job has also afforded me the privilege of speaking to teachers, public officials, and community boosters who believe that the arts are good for students, seniors, downtowns, tourism, as well as plenty of other groups and initiatives. However, sometimes they don’t know what to say or do to persuade movers, shakers, and/or non-believers. In particular, they express frustration that the arts are kept on the fringes of discussions about moving their communities strategically forward, or that the arts are perceived as expendable amenities, rather than as essential forces of positive change.
I’m not aware of too many magic bullets for incorporating the arts into rural economic development, but I know to look for six characteristics from constituents who’ve been successful.
1) Clarity of Goals – A plan is not a plan without an end in mind. If you want to do something, then be clear about the intended effects it will have on your community. A vehicle for reaching your community goals could be opening an arts center, or organizing a festival, or starting a gallery crawl, but those activities won’t have short-term or long-term effects without an expressed purpose. So your goals need to be clear, logically related to the means for achieving them, and attainable. Be very aware that if you are pitching your project or program as a component of economic development, then one of your long-term goals must be to generate revenue. Whatever form it takes – income for local artists, new business for the hospitality industry, a bump in the county tax rolls – it is important to show how economic benefits will accrue to the community at large.
2) Sustainability – Whatever project or initiative is proposed, it must be sustainable, meaning that the assets, resources, and talent necessary already exist (or can be procured/developed easily); that the costs associated with starting up won’t exhaust community reserves of human, financial, and social capital; and that the project and or initiative would not be easily and economically replaced by other enterprises to achieve the same goals. Well-articulated goals that lay out how cultural, social, and economic community benefits are generated will help show that the arts achieve ends that commercial development alone cannot.
3) Evaluation – To truly show how your project or initiative is sustainable and makes progress toward the stated goals, you must measure and document the impact on the community. This is not a task to be undertaken at the tail-end of executing a plan but should be considered in tandem with generating clear goals. Ask yourself and your fellow planners what success (and failure) would look like, as well as what types of measurements and indicators capture the imagination of policymakers and investors in your project. The narrative you want to tell is a human story, one in which community members’ lives are better, demonstrated and supported with measurable, relevant data.
4) Visibility & Partnerships – This narrative becomes important for achieving visibility and building partnerships. While these are in many ways interdependent, achieving visibility in areas that are underserved, under-resourced, sparsely populated, with limited communication networks is challenging but needed work. Building relationships and helping people understand their personal stake in economic development goals are crucial to acquiring the needed grassroots and political support to forge mutually beneficial partnerships. Partnerships that can in turn offer pooled resources, logistical solutions, a diversity of ideas and perspectives, as well as more stakeholders.
5) Authenticity – Finally, whatever is attempted, whether your project preserves traditions, breaks new ground in your community, or intensifies work that is already being done, there must be authenticity. No good ever came of ignoring your community’s cultural context or norms, and rural perspectives have a long history of being ignored. Just don’t do it.
After writing this blog posting, I realize that I am providing the same advice that I give to constituents applying for our grants. I know what I know. You know what I mean?