In 2014, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts was honored with an NEA Challenge America: Fast Track grant. This wonderful grant program targets arts organizations in rural areas; Allegan County, Michigan, is a very rural county indeed!
Our NEA grant was to support an exhibition and suite of programming around Richard Renaldi's Touching Strangers photographs. Richard's photos are portraits of couples or trios posing and touching in some way—in a hug, hands on shoulders, etc. The catch is that the people are strangers—they had never met until posing for this portrait. The photos ask the viewer myriad questions about who we view as "stranger" or "other" and why.
Richard's Touching Strangers photos had previously been shown in only a very few urban galleries—never in a rural area—and never used as a centerpiece for art education among high school and college students.
The exhibition was a tremendous success, garnering passionate reactions from viewers. Perhaps the most remarkable reactions came from two groups who toured the show and then did creative projects responding to Richard's photos. One of those groups was adults from MOKA, a social service agency that works with disabled adults. While most of the MOKA members were not able to leave written responses to the show, the social workers accompanying the group shared how deeply touched the members were. In fact, MOKA brought two additional groups of adults to view the exhibition as a result!
We also hosted a number of high school groups. The students toured the exhibition then responded to what it means to be "the stranger" or "other.” Students wrote mini essays and took Polaroid "selfies"—then left their responses on a board in our hallway for others to view. Their responses were so powerful—honest, raw, positive, inquisitive, anxious, sad—and invoked a great deal of feedback from members of the public who read these mini essays.
Touching Strangers generated tremendous community conversation. The exhibition brought people to the Art Center to view the photos who had never before visited. It challenged students (and anyone who viewed the photos) to examine their beliefs, stereotypes, and comfort zones. It gave adults from MOKA a special reason to visit the SCA and have their own dialogue. And it reminded everyone who viewed the works that great art moves people.
We could not have hosted Touching Strangers without our NEA grant—we simply could not have afforded the printing, framing, shipping, etc. The NEA grant made a real difference in our rural community—a difference that we are still talking about.