Thinking regionally in rural New Hampshire

The Park Theatre, Jaffrey, NH

A group of small arts organizations in rural Monadnock region of Southwest New Hampshire have come together to form Monadnock Arts Alive, an organization working to sustain, promote and advance access to the arts of all disciplines across the region. These arts organizations, from choral groups to theater companies to visual arts centers, are very small, often relying on part-time staff and volunteers. Located in a state where the motto is “Live free or die,” through Arts Alive these organizations are demonstrating the power of thinking, collaborating and planning regionally in order to bring innovation in the arts to the area as a whole.

I interviewed David Macy, Resident Director of the MacDowell Colony and member of Arts Alive’s board of directors, and Sue Farrell, the organization’s Executive Director, about the development of Arts Alive and innovative strategies they are putting in place to better serve arts in the region.

Eleanor Whitney: You are located in southwest New Hampshire; how would you describe this area of the state?  What does your area look and feel like? 

David Macy: With scores of towns connected by a network of two lane roads, Southwest New Hampshire retains a rural feel very different from the parts of the U.S.  After living here about two years, I found myself in Roy’s, the small grocer downtown Peterborough, and I asked the cashier if I could set up a charge account.  She pointed to the back of the store and said I’d need to speak with Mr. Roy. Mr. Roy asked me how long I’d lived in town and where I worked and then turned back toward the meat counter.  When asked if there was a credit application to fill out, he said, “No need, just give the cashier your address and you’re all set.”

Animaterra Women’s Chorus

EW: Monadnock Arts Alive is a regional arts alliance far from any a major urban area.  What challenges are unique to your rural setting?

DM: Generally speaking, rural nonprofit groups have low expectations regarding municipal funding and have severely limited access to national foundations. As a result, the strength of relationships with donors is the determining factor for sustainability.  With a shorter list of potential donors capable of major gifts, organizations in rural locations are wise to track their peers’ capital campaigns schedules. The low population density that defines rural life calls for different strategies for organizations seeking to build audience. At Arts Alive, we set out to build coalitions to help with both of these issues.  For example, the Monadnock Choral Arts Alliance was formed as a result of comments aired at one of our plenary sessions. Breaking from a past in which they saw one another as competitors, several choral groups joined forces to coordinate their performance calendars, maximizing opportunities for audience members to attend.  Having grown to include 12 choral groups, they recently created a Choralpalooza event with the goal of raising the profile of all participants.

Photo courtesy of Monadnock Area Artists Association

EW: Who or what organizations did you look to as a model for setting up Arts Alive! Are there organizations or alliances in other areas of the country that have similar needs that were useful to you?
DM: In the mid-nineties I was a founding member of the Peterborough Arts Council, a smaller organization with similar goals.  We coordinated event calendars, worked with local merchants to establish a First Friday arts tradition, and published a joint-marketing brochure identifying Peterborough as an arts destination.  At Arts Alive, we researched successful organizations across the country and were inspired by a long list of public-private partnerships.  Here in New England, we communicated with leaders at Art Speak in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Berkshire Creative, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

EW: How did you develop your vision for arts in the region?

DM: From the beginning Arts Alive has been driven by arts leaders and individual artists. In the early days, Arts Alive acted as convener, framing questions about what could be accomplished through joint effort if there were to be a new organization with a regional focus.  By holding plenary sessions around the region, we built relationships with civic leaders interested in the arts with their own vision for what might be.  Founding members of the Alliance brought key insights related to the Southwest New Hampshire Arts Center identified above.  Although it was just a gleam in the eyes of a few at that time, the possibility of a regional arts facility helped force the need for a regional alliance into view.

Apple Hill String Quartet. Photo by Robert Sargent Fay

EW: What are some of the things that the arts community did not have the capacity to do before Arts Alive?
DM: We worked with Americans for the Arts to marshal the effort to quantify the regional arts economy in 2010. In Peterborough, we have used the results of that survey to support a new Cultural Resources chapter in the town’s Master Plan.  Over the past three years we have acted as catalyst for the merger of The Colonial Theatre and The Moving Company, both in Keene, New Hampshire, into what will be known as the Southwest New Hampshire Arts Center.  We are acting as a fiscal sponsor for The Monadnock International Film Festival, a startup organization that will have its inaugural season in 2012.  Most importantly, we’ve regularly convened leaders of arts organizations to discuss, debate and expand ideas about social media, joint-marketing, cultural tourism and audience development. Because our region is blessed with a very strong base of dynamic arts organizations, we are finding very real opportunities to build connections that will manifest as a regional brand.
EW: What are you doing differently now than when Arts Alive began? What has driven that change?

Sue Farrell: Arts Alive has always been a convening organization, arising from the collaborative efforts of funders and regional arts and culture organizations. We look at opportunities for our involvement and determine how that involvement will best serve our mission.

For example, we currently see an opportunity to convene regional arts and businesses. We are in the process of developing this program, but some of the questions we are asking are: What is the best way to create awareness between businesses and arts?  How can the arts connect new and current employees with their community?  How can we effectively promote our vibrant arts community to attract and retain   talented, creative employees?

EW: What is your 5 to 10 year vision for Arts Alive and arts in the region of Southwest New Hampshire? What is your strategy for implementing that vision practically?

Sharon Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Melanie McDonald

SF: My vision is for Arts Alive to become the “hub” of arts information for residents and visitors, almost like a chamber of commerce, where we are the resource for arts throughout the region. We are currently leading the initiative to increase cultural tourism in the Monadnock region. Our task force consists of arts, travel and tourism organizations, regional chambers of commerce and other interested parties. The long term goal is to create an identity for the Monadnock region as an arts and culture destination. We are actively partnering with the NH Department of Travel and Tourism and our 2012 goal is to develop a versatile cultural events calendar and visitor itineraries to submit to their website.

Through a coordinated regional effort David Macy, Sue Farrell and others involved in Arts Alive are working to broaden awareness of their region’s cultural offerings, with the goal of bringing in new audiences and new revenues to local arts organizations. Arts Alive has given them a venue to strengthen social bonds with peer organizations across New England and generate a synergy that will help build the creative economy in Southwest New Hampshire. They show the power of thinking regionally in a rural area, where the power of working and strategizing together for small arts organizations can drive larger, dynamic changes that will benefit all.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.