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North Carolina is known nationally for its extensive network of local arts agencies, featuring 84 local arts councils in a state with 100 counties. One county, however, is conspicuously absent. The 10th most populous county in the state, New Hanover County on the southern coast, has not had an arts council since 2002. The leaders of the county seat of Wilmington asked the North Carolina Arts Council (the state arts agency) for help. The Arts Council then asked for help from someone else—the North Carolina Folklife Institute.

You might ask, what do folklorists have to do with the founding of an arts council? The answer lies in cultural asset research.  Before establishing a new organization, the North Carolina Arts Council wanted to research what cultural assets were present in the area and what particular challenges were facing the arts community.  And according to Kate Prescott of the market research firm Prescott and Associates, this kind of exploratory research is best accomplished through qualitative methods such as interviewing. Folklorists, as it happens, are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don’t consider themselves “artists.” By working with folklorists, the North Carolina Arts Council and community leaders in New Hanover County were rewarded with a vivid picture of the arts in their area that went far beyond numbers, bringing to life the personalities and groups that make the community unique.

The Process

Folklore research in some ways mimics folk art itself. You start off with a solid foundation or template, and then “go with the flow.” Sarah Bryan of the North Carolina Folklife Institute, along with Sally Peterson, Folklife Specialist at the North Carolina Arts Council, were selected to head the cultural asset research project. First, they conducted document research about the arts in Wilmington, tracing the city’s arts heritage to the late-18th-century founding of Wilmington itself. Then they moved on to the city’s current arts assets, starting with stakeholders from various disciplines referred to them by arts leaders in Wilmington. To make sure they were hearing from everyone in the region, including artists working outside the established arts infrastructure, members of immigrant groups, and artists working in new media, they grew that list organically through their fieldwork.

Fieldwork can be both structured and unstructured. Structured fieldwork is a simple matter of ending interviews with the question, “Who else do you think we should talk to?” Unstructured fieldwork is exploring an area through any means possible. Ms. Bryan gave examples of unstructured fieldwork such as attending festivals and talking to people, perusing community bulletin boards, and shuffling through the stacks of business cards at gas stations and talking to the attendants. Ms. Bryan made one of her discoveries while at a red lightthe car in front of her was emblazoned with “DragginFly Entertainment”, which turned out to be a gospel recording studio specializing in a new genre of gospel music, holy hip hop. This process of starting with a group recommended by people in the community and growing the list organically through informal conversations and observations lends authenticity to the interview process and encourages inclusion of artists outside the established infrastructure.

Likewise, interview questions in folklore research have a similar structure of following a template. In this study, there were two topics covered in all of the interviews—opinions about the nature and health of Wilmington’s arts community, and the interviewee’s own experience in Wilmington as an artist or someone working to support the arts. However, the questions themselves weren’t prepared; rather, the interviewer had topics in mind and questions arose as part of the natural flow of conversation.

The final component to the research process was a survey of largely open-ended questions made available to the entire community. In total, 180 responses were collected from interested citizens, artists, arts board members, volunteers, arts participants and arts administrators. They survey covered essentially the same topics as the interviews and ensured a broader community imprint on the study.

The Results

After eight months of research and fieldwork, Ms. Bryan and Ms. Peterson along with the North Carolina Arts Council staff came out with three reports: “Report on the Arts Resources and Cultural Traditions of Wilmington and New Hanover County,” the public survey results, and “Recommendations for Forming an Arts Council in Wilmington and New Hanover County” (all of which can be found here).

The report on arts resources, in particular, brings all of the cultures and traditions and personalities of New Hanover County to life. It reveals a varied history of organized cultural events at the town’s oldest theater, Thalian Hall, originally built in 1759. It also turned up an incredibly rich African American cultural history, from Jonkunnu “carnival”-style festivals, to young black women who were pioneers in vaudeville and opera, to gospel music and the new “holy hip hop” genre. The area is not only known for bluegrass, but duranguense, the Mexican version of country western music. There is a large Latino population in New Hanover County (many from the province of Oaxaca) who celebrate traditional holidays such as Tres Reyes or “Three Kings,” and still engage in traditional arts forms such as painting and embroidery. Being a coastal town, residents are experts in boatmaking and oyster-shucking. And  it’s not just traditional southern food that’s served here—the diversity of the community means that Latino (especially Oaxacan) and Greek food are also available. Finally, over the last forty years, Wilmington has become a popular place in the film industry because of its variety of architecture, locations, and low cost of doing business.

The public survey results reveal some overarching themes. Wilmington is attractive to creative workers due to its existing local arts scene, affordability, and proximity to water (both the ocean and the river), which many artists cite as inspirational to their work.  The city faces challenges, however. While Wilmington is a haven for early and late career artists, it loses mid-career artists who have to move away to find work. In addition, being a small community with limited resources, artists and organizations openly admit to struggling with competing amongst themselves instead of working together.  Residents have clear ideas of what they want an arts council to accomplish for the city. They believe that their arts assets are economic assets, but that they haven’t fully been realized as such. They want an arts council that can turn their local culture into dollars for the city. The survey also reveals a strong desire for public art in the city.

The recommendation report pulls everything together into a guidebook for what the new arts council should look like and how it should function. Incorporating feedback from the interviews and the survey, it advises that the arts council should concentrate on three core areas: securing funding, recruiting experienced staff, and building relationships both within the arts community and with other key stakeholders. It also recommends to “strike while the iron is hot” by forming a council within the next year and a half.  It provides a set of beliefs to guide the new council, as well as a budget for the first year.

The Benefits

Wayne Martin, Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the North Carolina Arts Council, explains the benefits that came from using folklorists in this project.

  • Authenticity

“By having folklorists trained in interviewing, we got some really eloquent statements that we were able to quote exactly. The results of the research were in the words of residents, which was a different tone than when other consultants would come in and write about a place. We were confident that the assets they reported on were valued by those in the community, lending an air of authenticity and connection we hadn’t had from other reports.”

  • Community Engagement

“The work itself was a great community engagement tool. The interviews and conversations engaged the community at a deeper level than other projects.”

  • Identifying artists outside the infrastructure

“Folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in a variety of forms. While it’s easier to just engage with artists and arts organizations, you leave out a big segment of the community who can bring a lot of depth in terms of artistic assets.”

  • Identifying Community Culture

“Folklorists understand how artistry is a window onto a community. They are able to articulate how the art that is produced there reflects the values of that community and makes it distinct.”

Moving Forward

After a two year process and eight months of research funded by a $15,000 contract, an arts council for Wilmington and New Hanover County is around the corner. The city has already agreed to appropriate funds for the council if the county takes the first step.  This month, there will be a County Commission meeting to decide that.

Folklorists aren’t usually asked to conduct this kind of cultural asset research, but the method shows great promise. Mr. Martin says that the North Carolina Arts Council has already shared their work on this project with their counterparts in Kentucky and adds that they would be happy to share with others.

Imagine the possibilities, though—what else can folklorists help us with? Stay tuned for more about how folklorist research can interact with more than just traditional arts, and can become a tool for cultural advocacy, tourism and business councils, and region-specific grantmaking institutions.

Special thanks to Wayne Martin and Sarah Bryan for their help in preparing this post.