Don’t Call It An Arts Desert

Last week Springboard for the Arts’ Executive Director Laura Zabel addressed the concept of solving “arts deserts” in a series of tweets.

The above sentiment particularly resonated with me because I worked for an arts organization in a rural part of a state where the statutory requirement that a percentage of arts funding to our part of the state was interpreted as giving more money to arts organizations in the urban areas if they sent touring shows to our part of the state. With the help of the speaker of the legislature, who was from our part of the state, that requirement was clarified as direct funding.

This tweet, in addition to the others in the chain, reminded me of Ronia Holmes’ piece that I have cited before, Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why, where she writes:

Disinvested communities are not devoid of arts and culture. In America particularly, communities who historically have been excluded from the table have responded by building their own tables, using whatever resources could be scraped together. Marginalized communities have established organizations that don’t treat them or their cultural output as deviations from the norm to be celebrated for diversity, but as fundamental components of society. The organizations they created, and continue to create, are replete with artists, leaders, decision-makers, and workers who look like and are part of the community they serve, who share similar lived experiences, and have a deep understanding of what programming will truly resonate.

These organizations are often in a constant struggle to survive in a system that is not only structured against them in terms of funding and other resource allocation, but that delivers a consistent message that what these community-based and -built organizations do is better handled by some organization several zip codes away. An organization that looks nothing like the community they’re supposedly courting, either in terms of staff composition or artistic output, …

I keep coming back to Holmes’ essay because I and others continue to observe examples where these problematic practices exist. The reality is, this dynamic doesn’t just exist between urban and rural locales or different towns, you can see it in operation between different neighborhoods and blocks in places we live. There are cultural districts and neighborhoods with parks and sidewalks that create similar impressions that places which lack certain amenities also lack a strong sense of culture, social bonds, and traditions because they are less visibly on display. But if you know where and how to look, you find they are consistently practiced and quite visible.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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