NEA Arts Magazine

Bringing Art to the Heartland

Mid-America Arts Alliance's Rural Initiatives


A man and a woman in costume

Children from the Ponca City, Oklahoma, area perform the leading roles in a Missoula Children's Theatre production of The Frog Prince, presented through a grant from Mid-America Arts Alliance. Photo courtesy of Ponca City Arts and Humanities Council.

Not surprisingly, the nation's highest concentration of arts organizations is in metropolitan areas, which means that many Americans, particularly those in rural areas, have limited access to high-quality arts experiences. That is the reason the regional arts organizations (RAOs) were born, to reach those overlooked places that often get left behind. The NEA has worked with the RAOs on projects such as the NEA Regional Arts Touring Program, which brings live arts performances to rural areas throughout the country. Each year the program helps to present approximately 1,800 projects in more than 800 communities nationwide. In 2008, the program is expanding to include literature and visual arts projects as well as performing arts.

Regional arts organization Mid-America Arts Alliance (Mid-America) serves the sixstate region of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Executive Director Mary Kennedy McCabe explained that the agency was founded to attract more arts performances to the middle of the country. "Community leaders could see our communities and regions were missing out on opportunities that were being enjoyed on either coast."

In 2007, Mid-America presented 329 diverse programs and projects, with 601 accompanying educational activities, to nearly 100 communities through the Regional Arts Touring Program. More than one-half million individuals, including artists, benefitted from these programs. In 2008, Mid-America will support performances by renowned artists such as the Alvin Ailey American DanceTheatre, the Soweto Gospel Choir, and the Acting Company.

McCabe noted, "The Regional Arts Touring Program is a partnership not only with the NEA, but also with all of the presenters in our region and the artists and the audiences. So the funding that comes from the NEA is a catalyst to a much greater partnership between all of those entities."

Mid-America also works with the NEA to present Exhibits USA, which supports traveling exhibitions for small and mid-sized museums. According to McCabe, "Most [exhibitions] go to large institutions in major metro areas. This brings those kinds of arts experiences to places that would not have them otherwise."

The Arts Endowment also helps to support Mid-America's Latino Culture Project, which brings Latino artists to communities in response to the region's changing demographics. Another program, the Ozarks Plateau Initiative, focuses on the southern portion of Missouri, which McCabe said has "some of the smallest, most rural communities where we bring Exhibits USA and the Regional Arts Touring Program. For some of these communities, this is the first time they've had a professional art exhibit and professional performing artist in their community."

McCabe added that the educational activities that accompany each project are especially meaningful. "Within our region, we've seen a tremendous decline in arts education activities within our schools. In some of these communities, the educational activities that go along with the performances may be the rare arts education experience that some of these students are going to have." And it's that experience with the arts that Mid-America is striving for with their projects.