Amplifying the Arts

Todd Stein / Mid-America Arts Alliance
A view through a window as gallery visitors look at a new exhibit of jellyfish-like sculptures hanging from the ceiling

In 2017, the Mid America Arts Alliance exhibited Water Bank Boogie IV by Nebraska-based artist Susan Knight, as part of its First Friday exhibition series. Photo courtesy of Mid-America Arts Alliance

Middle America has too often existed as the middle child of American arts discourse, forgotten in broader discussions surrounding culture, the arts, and access. Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) has worked since its founding in 1972 to combat this narrative. The first regional arts organization, it has been providing arts access in the region through the support of artists, cultural institutions, and communities for almost 50 years.

On average, M-AAA serves over one million children and adults across its region and the nation each year through arts programming, grantmaking, and professional development. The agency’s work strives to provide access to culture and the arts in historically underserved, largely rural areas throughout middle America, funding exhibits, performances, and arts training all across the six states M-AAA represents (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas).

Todd Stein, president and chief executive officer of Mid-America Arts Alliance, spoke with us recently about the work of M-AAA, and how it supports access to arts and culture all across the Mid-America region.

IMPACTING CULTURE IN MIDDLE AMERICA

Like the rest of the United States, our region is evolving. One of the reasons we were formed as a regional arts organization is to try to provide arts and cultural experiences for rural residents, rural constituents of the region.

In our last fiscal year, we awarded $1.2 million in grant funds to artists and arts and cultural organizations. We reached 155 communities in 34 states across the United States through the exhibitions we tour through ExhibitsUSA and NEH on the Road [a National Endowment for the Humanitiesfunded traveling exhibition program], through the grantmaking that takes place through our organization, and through convenings that we held across the region.

Headshot of a man smiling with glasses and gray hair
"[W]e believe the freedom of cultural and creative expression is fundamental to humanity." -Todd Stein

REGIONAL ARTS FUNDING

The regionals play a really unique role in partnerships with federal funding agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts and the state arts agencies. We can work in between the governmental agencies to seek funding from private foundations, individuals, and corporations, and amplify the work that’s being done on the federal and state level. We can also identify specific needs within a region, like trying to reach rural areas of the Western High Plains, for example, or underserved communities, and our lens as a regional helps with those collaborative partnerships.

The partnerships that we have with our state arts agencies are crucial. We collaborate with each of the state arts agencies in different ways to help support the programming that they have, objectives they’d like to reach, and to work in tandem with them to reach the most rural areas of their states. Another role of a regional is to bring together the state arts agencies from within our region and say, “Okay, something’s working great in Texas. How can we expand that concept to Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri?”

The partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts is critical. The Arts Endowment supports the ExhibitsUSA program, Artistic Innovations, the Regional Touring Program, and Artist INC—the list goes on and on. It brings to light the importance of federal funding, the partnership with regionals, and how we can work collaboratively with the states to amplify the work.

A young girl bends over and decorates an apron as part of an exhibition

A young girl at the Delta Cultural Center in Arkansas decorates an apron as part of Apron Strings: Ties to the Past, an exhibit made possible through ExhibitsUSA. ExhibitsUSA is a touring exhibition program managed by the Mid-America Arts Alliance. Photo courtesy of Mid-America Arts Alliance

ENDURING PROGRAMMING

I have such a love for each of our programs. The ExhibitsUSA program stands apart as one that achieves our goal to reach into rural areas of not just our region but the country as a whole. These exhibitions go to tiny towns all across the nation where the constituents in that community may not have access to large museums. We have 38 exhibitions on the road at the moment through ExhibitsUSA. It’s an opportunity to provide a variety of different exhibition experiences that range from craft to fine art and everything in between.

The Artist INC program is growing across our region and reaching artists in new communities. We have 1,500 artists that are fellows of the Artist INC program, in ten communities across the region. We plan to expand that program to new communities, not just within our region, but perhaps in future years across the nation. The program provides business and entrepreneurial training for individual artists and the longitudinal evaluative data we have shows this training is durable, and that the effects of the Artist INC program last for years after the program has ended.

THE IMPORTANCE OF REGIONAL WORK

One of our core values is that we believe the freedom of cultural and creative expression is fundamental to humanity. When you think about our programming and the feedback that we receive from the grants we provide to artists and to cultural organizations, the evaluative data and feedback we receive from children who have had an educational experience through one of the exhibitions we tour, artists who’ve shared how the Artist INC program has changed their life, it brings home the importance of what we’re trying to accomplish. When I’m in Waco, Texas, at the dedication of a community mural that we’ve funded, or in a small town in Arkansas that has benefited from a grant, it reaffirms that the work we do matters. Sometimes you get lost in the administration and the paperwork and the guidelines and the criteria, the rules. But when you’re out in the field and you can really see the impact, that’s where you can see first-hand how the work we do matters. We’ve accomplished so much over the last 50 years, and I can see Mid-America Arts Alliance still playing a prominent role in the arts 50 years from now.

Timmy Sutton was an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts in fall 2019.

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