Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Tippecanoe Arts Federation

Based in Lafayette, Indiana, the Tippecanoe Arts Federation is a regional arts partner with the Indiana Arts Commission. In relationship with the commission, Tippecanoe Arts undertakes a host of activities in its 14-county region of North Central Indiana, including technical assistance, cultural needs assessment, information and referral services, and grantmaking. The regional arts council also facilitates programs of its own, with the goal of reaching underserved and at-risk populations in its extended community. Thanks to Tippecanoe, the region also boasts gallery walks and exhibitions, an instrument lending library, and an extensive afterschool arts program where participants can learn anything from traditional painting and drawing, to DJ-ing and videography, to how to play the ukulele or banjo.

This spring Tippecanoe Arts Federation was recommended for an NEA grant to support Art in Rural Places, a project that puts performing and visual artists in residence in communities that have limited or no access to the arts. We spoke with Tippecanoe Arts Federation Executive Director Tetia Lee to learn more about the Art in Rural Places project and how it works to strengthen the participating communities.

a man on a ladder adding paint to a mural

Artist Zach Medler up in the air doing some detail work on the mural [dis]connected. [dis]connected was a collaborative project that partnered the Tippecanoe Arts Federation’s After School Art Program and the Bauer Community Center’s Aftercare program. Photo courtesy of Tippecanoe Arts Federation

NEA: What’s the mission of the Tippecanoe Arts Federation?

TETIA LEE: Our mission is very simple: it's to grow the arts.

NEA: Can you talk more about what it means when you say "grow the arts"?

LEE: Our board of directors chose to change our mission about seven years ago. [They] wanted it to be something to aspire to….  Growing the arts folds into our vision statement of making sure that every individual and every community experiences the vitality of the arts, and that's what we're striving to do. Though we're headquartered in Lafayette, which has a lot of amenities and resources, the vast majority of our constituents don't have that, so we want to make sure that there is equal access to the arts as well as a resource to make sure that our young people and our community members are able to experience the arts in all of its forms and diversity.

NEA: You’ve been recommended to receive an NEA grant in support of the Art in Rural Places project. Can you describe that project and also talk about the need in the community that sparked it?

LEE: There are actually three communities that we're very fortunate to be working with for the Art in Rural Places grant, and all three of these communities are very rural. One of the counties that we're in is Benton County, and they have a total population of 6,000 people. The little town that we're going to be in, Fowler, is actually their largest community, and it's one of those communities that you hear about in the Midwest where they'll have maybe a stop sign, and if they're really getting big then they might have a stop light. The location that we picked out [for the project] marries both the roots of the community, which is based in agriculture, and also the vision that they have for progress…. They've recently renovated an Art Deco theater. What I have found most enjoyable about [working] in these communities is the people. They're just fantastic. It's an all-volunteer theater, and the principal takes the tickets, and different community groups make sure that the doors are open and that if people need concessions that they're there. They're really trying to make Fowler relevant into the future… and to make more of a spotlight on that quality of place. We have been in conversations with them for the greater part of two-and-a-half years trying to get a project like this to take off, and we have the community support. We're very fortunate to have community foundations representing almost all of our 92 counties of Indiana, and we have been wanting to work for a solution and also bring some additional dollars and resources and talent to the table. And what this grant is enabling us to do is to bring in someone who's very talented to work with the community members to produce something that will last as long as that spirit of Fowler.

NEA: Can you walk us through how the residencies work?

LEE: We have ongoing relationships with individuals from each of the counties that will be receiving a residency and a mural. We work with a community partner and we set a location. They let us know specifically what type of discipline they would like for their community to be exposed to [such as] mural art. We like to have the artist sit down with the community members to brainstorm on some imagery, some symbolism that can be incorporated into the design. After that occurs there's some instruction from the artist on technique, and the artist during this time also puts together an overall design that will then be translated to the surface by the artist. Young people and community members that are interested help paint or block in the colors of the mural, and they work with the artist on completing it. The artist comes in and does the final rendering and the finishing touches of it, and then after that, after everything's put together, we've got the plaque on the wall so to speak. We also do a community dedication.

NEA: Who participates in these residencies?

LEE: A lot of times we'll work directly with young people. The program actually started with a connection with an organization called Cary Home, which is here in Lafayette, and it's for young people that are essentially disadvantaged youth, either because they've made some bad decisions or maybe their family has made some bad decisions. That’s also our target audience for all of our educational programs, because we see that there are plenty of resources in Lafayette for students or young people and their families that have the means, but there is a serious lack of opportunity for the others. Our partners have also told us over and over again that generally no one wants to work with them, and that's who we want to work with. We found that they're the ones that are probably the hardest to love but the ones that need it the most. We're also really picky about our instructors because they have to be able to work with these young people who are probably not the straight-A students and to connect with them on a deeper level. We have found over and over again that there is a deep connection that happens during these residencies and it strengthens the young person's individual connection with the community. Because murals last a long time, we're hoping that 15 or 20 years down the road when [the students] have their families they'll be bringing them back, and so we're also hoping that that will help our communities retain their populations. All of our kids have this pride in accomplishment, so we're also very fortunate that none of the pieces that we've done have been vandalized. They spread the word.

Other community members--adults, sometimes their grandmothers, their aunties--will come out and help them just because they're there. The artists that we work with are very open and they're very inviting….  We talk about a county that's only 6,000 people deep, and I can tell you that we'll have at least a couple hundred people at the dedication because there will be so many people who will be involved in the process. Either they gave an idea or they came to one of the workshops where they were learning how to hold a spray can or to be better able to cover an area with rollers or do text with a spray can or different techniques. They all want to come and we provide a little bit of refreshment and and our state legislators make a big deal about things like this, especially in our rural communities. We certainly have the support of our bigger city mayors. The murals are huge by nature. They make a lasting impression on the community and help them to further commit to support the arts.

NEA: Can you please say more about how you see these various residencies benefiting the communities in which they are taking place?

LEE: I mentioned that we serve 14 different counties in North Central Indiana, and… we have seen a consistent decline in the quality and quantity of arts education in our school systems and in these communities period…. We saw a lot of instructors who had their degrees in arts education, but their main focus was music, and now those educators were being forced to not only teach music classes but also be the visual arts instructor. They may have taken one or two [visual arts] classes in college, but they certainly couldn't utilize in full capacity this wonderful electric kiln that they had in the arts classroom. So [the residencies] provide some professional development for our educators who are still in that situation by bringing additional advanced knowledge from working professionals in the field. For instance, a lot of the instructors don't know how to do a raku fire. Our paid instructors that we have for residencies will go out there, help the students put together their projects and then fire them, and so that's something in terms of continuing education for our educators and also an opportunity for our young people to be exposed to something that they would otherwise never have an opportunity to have. It’s causing them to also be exposed to different varieties of arts. Sometimes with 30 minutes in a classroom it makes it very difficult for a lot of our instructors to do anything that's really that in-depth. Well, this provides [teachers] with an additional adult body in the classroom who can basically take over and instruct for that one- to three-week period, and then it also generates that additional interest from our young people in the arts, which we hope will stimulate them to further support the arts as they become adults.

In some of our communities that we serve they cannot provide any sort of education or arts access to their community members, and so there again that's when we see our demand for our programs and services increase. They come to us and say, "Hey, would you be able to provide any sort of education for our young people to tell us what they're interested in?" So if it's something folk art-based or if it's musical instruments or a traditional painting and drawing class, we're able to tap the resources of our membership and deliver that to them so that hopefully, well, at the very least they will have the access to it. Where we're trying to grow the arts is grow the number of active opportunities that residents have to experience the arts.

NEA: How important is the NEA funding this project?

LEE: It's huge. From an organizational standpoint, in the 40 years that this organization has existed this is the first grant that we've ever received directly from the NEA, so that's a huge deal for us. For the program, it brings it to another level of awesome is I guess the best way that I can say it. Our mural program and artist program, our residency programs, have been going on for the greater part of seven years, and they've been very well-received, but knowing that there's funding and support from the NEA they will be more respected and we believe looked at in a way that they haven’t been before. I've been doing arts admin for probably the last 20 years, and this feels good to just know that it's an NEA-worthy project.

NEA: What advice would you give to a community that wanted to undertake a similar artist residency project?

LEE: Come talk to us. <laughs> It's not the easiest of things, but it's a wonderful way to brighten up your community, literally, and it's a great way to unify the community. Give yourself plenty of time to organize it and have a group of passionate people that are also worker bees that are part of the crew that get it done. Make sure that the community in general knows about it so that they can support it.

NEA: Finish this sentence: The arts matter because...

LEE: They are the vital piece of what makes us human. 

Select "Grants" from the Category pull-down menu to the right to learn more about NEA-supported projects.

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