Alabama State Council on the Arts

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African American boy points to a painting on the wall

Above the Water Line by Saphea Khan of Alba Middle School in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a photo taken as part of an Alabama State Council on the Arts project supported by the NEA. In the photo, Sophin, her brother, is pointing to where the water rose inside their home, just below the only item that survived the flood -- a painting of their Cambodian homeland. Photo courtesy of Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Alabama's arts community is particularly strong in the areas of folk and traditional arts and crafts. Al Head, Executive Director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, says, "Alabama is known internationally regarding folk artists, and artists who are self-taught and visionary." These artists include painter Thornton Dial, painter and sculptor Charlie Lucas, and perhaps most famous, the quilters of Gee's Bend, whose works have been exhibited nationally.

When the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes hit, the Alabama coastal community was still recovering from a series of storms in 2004. "The Alabama Gulf Coast really sustained two hurricanes and three tropical storms in a 14-month period. Hurricane Katrina was a real punctuation point on a difficult period of time," explains Head.

The Alabama State Council on the Arts received an NEA grant of $24,100 to help revitalize the arts industry in hurricane-affected areas. Projects supported by the emergency grant included rebuilding a darkroom in Bayou La Batre that was used for arts education programs. Once construction was complete, the arts council sponsored a program in which seventh- and eighth-grade students at Alba Middle School documented the area's devastation using black-and-white photography. The arts council also initiated a project for local residents with the AlabamaWriters Forum, culminating in the anthology Writing Mobile Bay: The Hurricane Project.

Head asserts that the arts are vital to the region's recovery process. "The arts play such a central, integral role in trying to return some semblance of quality of life when [the catastrophe] is over. The arts do that better than any other element I'm aware of."

Since the string of storms, the arts council has made disaster relief and preparedness a priority of its long range planning. Like many agencies in hurricane areas, the arts council found itself facing issues of communication, particularly in trying to ascertain the whereabouts and wellbeing of individual artists.

Head said that another issue was trying to disburse much-needed funds using a process not designed for emergency relief. "We have all types of accountability policies that people have to work through as part of our providing support and those things become annoying and problematic when you try to get assistance to people," he explains. "At the NEA, it's important having something like the Chairman having some discretionary money that he can act on very quickly. The NEA funds really arrived quickly and that was very welcome. At the state arts council, we're looking at having a discretionary pool of money that can be used in an emergency."

Head says that, ultimately, the Alabama arts community has learned that "in times of difficulty and trouble and distress that the arts are an integral fiber of our lives and communities that serve us well when things are fine, but also serve us in incredibly important ways in dealing with tragedy and loss."