Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: A Cultural Void

In August, I went to see a dance performance in Willits. It was part of the InnerState Tour to bring dance to communities that might not otherwise have access to it. It was a small event, without a big crowd, part of a three day dance festival, but the crowd was all local, and highly attentive. They watched the dance raptly, and approached the dancers afterwards to talk about what they’d seen. The festival events included after-performance parties to give people a chance to interact directly with the dancers in a more relaxed environment.

Rural areas are often considered cultural voids. Wastelands. Places where arts do not exist. This is actually not the case; a lot of rural communities have art galleries and theatre companies and dance troupes, all of whom make arts and culture accessible available to residents. Yes, the arts are not as diverse, and the quality is not as high, as in the city, but this isn’t because of some sort of critical failing on the part of people who live in rural communities. It is not that rural residents are unable to appreciate culture and have no interest in it, but that rural areas are inherently limited in terms of what they can sustain.

Rural areas tend to be poor. In impoverished areas, funding for arts and culture tends to be more limited. It is difficult to justify the expenditure of creating things when members of the community are starving. When students need scholarship opportunities, the roads are falling apart, and the hospital needs an urgent infusion of money to stay operational. Art in rural areas is dependent on more limited resources and opportunities than that in urban environs, where there is not just a large culture of support for the arts, but the donors and organisations to back up that culture.

In urban communities, you have members of the community who believe in supporting the arts and work as volunteers or fund art centres, theatre, and other cultural opportunities. Volunteers tend to burn out quickly, especially with small town politics to contend with, but they do their best. Their best isn’t always the city best because people with a high level of competency and skill have better opportunities in the city.

It’s a coup to get an Equity actor to guest star in summer stock theatre. Supporting, full time, extremely talented artists is logistically impossible. There’s not enough money to attract them, the projects aren’t as interesting, and there are fewer opportunities to work with leading members of the field. If you’re an actor choosing between being the sole Equity presence in a community theatre Shakespeare production and appearing at a major London festival, there’s an obvious preference, understandably.

Outside sources of funding are a potential option. Corporations active in rural communities sometimes sponsor events and initiatives. People may apply for grants to fund some arts activities. Sometimes government agencies have some money to throw around and they dribble it out to local arts events. It’s not usually enough to support serious arts and culture endeavors, however. Take, for example, a traveling Picasso show. There’s no way a rural gallery will have the security and climate control necessary to protect the art. It would cost millions of dollars, which simply isn’t available, so rural communities don’t apply for traveling shows and productions of that nature, because they can’t support them.

Mobile art like the InnerState tour, where talented groups come with theatre, dance, and other productions, is pretty much the only way for people living in rural areas to access high-caliber arts. Which is why providing funding for such organisations is so critical, because rural people are thirsty for arts and culture. Not rubes who can’t appreciate or understand it; that rapt, intent audience watching modern dance pieces was proof of that. Audiences at events like that are self-selecting, of course, but show that there is an interest, there are people who want to consume art and culture, who will support it if they can.

Rural areas are not bereft of culture because of an inherent dislike or inability to appreciate art on the part of residents. They lack cultural opportunities because they don’t have the populations to support art. Art is expensive. Culture is costly. There’s a reason that major galleries and production companies in urban areas are constantly throwing high value fundraisers: because they need to do it in order to stay operational. What’s brought in at one of those black tie events is probably the sum total a gallery in a rural area could expect to bring in over the entire course of its operation. Obviously, when you count a budget in thousands, not millions, you cannot acquire great works of art, cannot attract great artists. Indeed, one might argue that it would be almost criminal to lock up beautiful works of art in lightly populated areas where very few people would get to see them in person.

The issue with rural areas and art is one of scale. Access to arts through traveling exhibitions, educational programming on television, and so forth is the only logistical way for rural people to access art and culture. That doesn’t mean that rural areas are voids, though. Organisations that treat rural residents like uncivilised people upon whom art and culture would be wasted are missing the point; the issue isn’t that rural areas can’t handle culture, but that they don’t have very many opportunities to experience it. Denying people chances to engage with arts and culture certainly isn’t going to increase their understanding of and appreciation for it.

And pretending that no art originates in rural areas is also a grave disservice. Rural people make art, play music, produce works of culture. Rural areas have their own cultural values and traditions which are often ignored and dismissed, even as they are appropriated and idealised for profit in urban spaces.