Arts & Culture Art | The Vehicle for  Community Change and Resilience

Jessica Gelter, executive director of Arts Alive!, with her dog Yamir at her home office. Gelter sees the role of artists in reflecting the community’s values by bringing people together, starting dialogues, and promoting the questioning of unjust systems and institutions.

The arts are manifested in many forms through various mediums and shaped by distinctive creative minds. Resiliency, too, is obtainable in a myriad of ways.

In a world defined by manifold sources of shock, violence and conflict, compounded by a rapidly accelerating rate of change, distrust and polarization, creative solutions are necessary. Now more than ever, the quality of resilience is vital to the survival of the small communities that play such a huge role in the life and happiness of rural Americans.

In times of instability, we tend to seek answers in the controlled and precise sectors of technology, science and economics. However, in the wake of a global pandemic and mass uprisings for social justice, many find that the arts provide a powerful vehicle for change and healing.

At this year’s Radically Rural: Remote Summit — hosted by the Keene Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center — Arts and Culture Track leaders hope to convey the importance of the arts and humanities in the rebuilding of rural communities.

Jessica Gelter, executive director of nonprofit, Arts Alive!, works to boost the creative economy and bolster creative enterprise in the Monadnock Region by supporting creative businesses, artists and cultural institutions. In her eyes, art in its many forms is directly tethered to the physical, economic, social and cultural elements that create a diverse and resilient locale.

Gelter sees the role of artists in reflecting the community’s values by bringing people together, starting dialogues, and promoting the questioning of unjust systems and institutions.

“Community that is connected and knows each other understands its history and cultural origins,” she says.

Gelter knows that creatively, we can move towards a more civically engaged and democratic society. For her, a post-pandemic comeback begins with the self-actualization of artists. They infuse a community with creative ideas, redefine place and space, and in-so-doing, promoting inclusivity and sense of belonging.

Gelter says, “Bringing people together to explore what it means to provide art to a community and who that community is will be a huge step in changing societal values as we move into the future.”

For Executive Director of New Hampshire Humanities, Anthony Poore, arts and humanities are revealers of truth and exposers of community conflict. Why? Because creative work is inspired by community and, in this way, reflects it back for all to see. As rural areas are becoming increasingly diverse, Poore wants people to feel like they are represented in the places they choose to live so that they, too, can be a part of this reflection.

“We must change the idea of belonging — people are coming into communities and don’t feel like they fit,” he says. “Places today are informed by their economic history when we work within a community to change it, we have to learn how to acknowledge its past in order to discover a natural course for the future.”

Barbara Schaffer Bacon co-directs Animating Democracy, a program by Americans for the Arts. She supports the arts and culture sectors and sees them as powerful contributors to community, civic and social change. She has seen a huge movement from the arts community to jump on board with current political movements and health and safety initiatives around the Covid-19 pandemic. For her, the power that creative minds and artists have to educate and inform the public on existing issues and encourage engagement in community activity is vital to any population.

“Throughout this pandemic, a lot of communities are becoming naturals at using the arts in planning, studying how people can gather safely, or sharing information to the public in creative and accessible ways,” says Bacon. She shares stories from frontline activists who are using creative ways to talk about voting rights, environmental degradation, and social justice. “Most importantly,” she says, “we are living in intense and strange times that must be documented. People’s stories and experiences must be told so that we can move forward and make positive change.”

In rural and urban areas alike, individuals are experiencing a collective trauma as we plunge into unknown economic and societal waters. With artists as our historians, biographers, and documentarians, we can learn from one another as we work together to create a new normal.

With the infusion of creativity in our small communities, we can increase inclusivity, drive fresh economic development, create a sense of pride in place, document history, promote diversity of culture, tell stories of community members and leaders, and begin to understand the differing points of view of others. Through art, our communities can connect, heal, and experience true joy and beauty; collectively. 

Jessica Gelter, Anthony Poore, and Barbara Shafer Bacon will be speaking on Sept. 24, 2020, as part of Radically Rural’s Arts and Culture Track. To learn more, visit radicallyrural.org.