A few weeks back, I got to follow NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman around Wisconsin (not in a creepy way) as he made a few whistle stops to celebrate art as a placemaker in communities. Of particular note was his visit to rural Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where an NEA grant is supporting the Farm/Art DTour, a self-guided driving tour of art installations, art/food stands, and pasture performances that launched in October and will return for a second round next fall.
There were the usual speeches about the importance of art and artists to the community, to the local economy, to the sense of place. But while the content of the conversation was much the same as any other 'art is good for communities' session you might attend, this one had a breadth and depth beyond most that I've experienced.
In addition to Rocco, we heard from the local chamber of commerce leader, a featured artist, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a family farmer. And all spoke with a tremble in their voice about the powerful exchanges the effort had forged -- between them and the visitors, between them and their neighbors, between them and the land, and within themselves. Those who had lived on their farms their entire lives found new beauty in the sounds and sights around them, because they got to witness others discover that beauty. Those who never had a connection now had a deep connection through shared experience and shared discovery.
The Farm/Art DTour was held alongside the area's Fermentation Fest, a celebration of all things cultured -- from beer to yoghurt to sauerkraut to cheese and beyond. And the metaphor couldn't have been a better fit. Fermentation breaks down complex compounds into more simple substances, releasing energy in the process. Programs like the Farm/Art DTour take highly complex social and political structures (farms, businesses, communities, neighbors) and break them down to elemental connections of people and place and shared purpose.
That's active culture. Come to Reedsburg next October and see for yourself.