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October 26, 2007

The Art of the Local

Joe Nickell

Art is an intensely local experience. But what arts organizations really put local considerations front and center when they design their programming, educational strategies, and other activities?

I'm not writing to tell you the answer. I'm honestly just throwing the question out there. I'll admit, there's a personal reason to ask: I'm doing a freelance piece for Inside Arts magazine, about this very topic. I'm looking to tell the stories of arts organizations that employ strategies that reflect the peculiar local circumstances of their communities. It's a broad examination of how local demographics, geography, and so-on influence the identity of specific arts organizations. I know some examples, but I want to hear more.

So in a sense, this post is a solicitation. But I suspect it's also the lead-off for further discussion here.

I'll throw out one example that I believe does a fine job of focusing on its local circumstances: the Missoula Art Museum. For one thing, the museum's programming is intensely local and contemporary. Indeed, touring shows and exhibits of work by artists from outside a half-day drive from here are the exception rather than the rule. They've also employed strategies such as their popular Artini series to capitalize on the peculiar demographics of this town.

Who else does this well? I'd love to hear.

Posted by Joe Nickell at October 26, 2007 8:34 AM


Joe, I think The Emerson here in Bozeman does a pretty good job of this, as do other arts organizations I happen to know of more peripherally. I would emphasize, though, that in addition to connecting local artists with the local community, it's equally important to connect both with the larger world. Narrow regionalism, ignorant of context, is unlikely to produce the best art, even for locals. On a state-wide scale, the Drumlummon Institute has cast this approach as "cosmoregionalism" or "critical regionalism."
Joe Nickell responds: Thanks for the suggestions Steve. You're absolutely right that arts presenters and producers alike must keep a perspective on the larger context of what they do. The good ones strike that balance.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at November 3, 2007 6:03 PM

Our local Equity company, The Willamette Repertory Theatre (in Eugene, Oregon) does a series of readings for the close of its season. Those "Readings in Rep" often bring the work of local playwrights to the attention of the Eugene crowd. And the chair of the U of Oregon Theatre Arts department does some Shakespearean adaptations, one of which has been performed and one of which will be performed, at another local semi-pro theater company, the Lord Leebrick Theatre. And certainly our ballet has choreography from the local choreographer. But otherwise ... maybe only the university school of music focuses on local composers for music performances. I suspect that is similar in many college towns.

Joe Nickell responds: You're probably right that colleges tend to be the main purveyors of truly local productions. Some of that is because they're often providing opportunities for their own professors; some is because they aren't necessarily quite as constrained by the perception of marketability. I hear it often around here in Missoula that the University can do offbeat programming or local programming because they don't have to "pay the bills." I personally question this logic -- I tend to think that creative programming is often a better sell to people bored with the same-old same-old, IF it's sold smartly and creatively. But I guess that might be a topic for a different discussion.

Posted by: Suzi at November 9, 2007 1:47 PM