As part of October’s National Arts and Humanities Month and in support of Americans for the Arts, Perry County Council of the Arts (PCCA) organized, hosted, and facilitated several “Creative Conversations” during a community fair, via social media, and within a coalition meeting of nonprofit arts professionals.
A 30-minute drive from our state capital in Pennsylvania, nestled near mountains and within a river valley, our home base of Newport, PA, can seem remote. Truly, with its beautifully preserved architectural detail, supportive community, and natural beauty, some locals prefer its remote reputation. We are located close to the fifth wealthiest county in our state (ours is ranked 25th). Our lived mission is to make our community a better place to live through the arts, and much of our programming is free or low cost, and intended for local children and families to enjoy.
In our Creative Conversations, we first asked our PCCA member artists, “Why should art exist?” They were generous in their responses. Inspiration, engagement, and connection was a theme in most cases: “To be a beacon of light in someone’s darkness.” “To illuminate something that others may not have noticed.” “Art should start a conversation.”
One artist admonished—“Art should have no shoulds.”
And sometimes, we adults can overthink things. When we asked our under-10 crowd this question at a community fair, they answered: “Art should be everywhere.” “Art should be fun and free!” “Art should be anything you want it to be!”
Serving a rural community, sometimes we wonder if we should use a term other than “art” or “the arts.” Do those words ring of elitism, or do they separate us from those we wish to serve? When the arts nonprofit leaders of our Central Pennsylvania Arts Coalition met together in December, I fully expected we’d spend time talking about other words to use instead.
One of my visionary colleagues suggested that any difficulty with the language we use might be our own problem. It’s the way we talk about art and the way we engage fully with our community and help them realize the qualitative value of their experience that matters, not the word “art.”
With this in mind, I do suggest that the arts should have at least one should—to enter into a process of companioning. Companioning has been used as a friendlier alternative to accompaniment. While we all work to serve audiences that are growing in diversity, we cannot prescribe the art that might engage our audience without engaging in conversation. We must be ready to walk with them, to find out through relationship and exploration together what their expectations, needs, and wants are.
And that’s how we truly build community through the arts.