Let Your Folk Flag Fly: Folklore Research and the Informal Arts

Over the last decade, you’ve probably known someone who took up dance or music classes, or maybe someone who joined a knitting or craft group, or started a novel. According to a 2008 NEA study, 74 percent of Americans participate in the arts through attendance, art creation, or media. Whether you call it the Pro-Am Revolution, the Long Tail, or participatory arts, foundations and arts leaders are taking notice of people getting together to be creative. Currently, however, theory is ahead of practice regarding collaboration between these casual groups of individuals and their more professionalized counterparts.  As a result, the world of formal arts institutions (nonprofit arts organizations, grantmakers, and arts agencies) remains apart from that of the informal arts (pro-am participatory groups, classes, and networks).

Folklorists are uniquely suited to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Their research methods address uncovering artists outside the nonprofit arts infrastructure, a factor essential to building a sustainable local arts network.  If foundations and arts policy decision makers want to build such an environment for the arts, folklorists can aid them in taking steps towards authenticity and sustainability.

The Importance of the Informal Arts

Several studies over the last ten years have emphasized the importance of informal arts as well as nonprofit arts organizations, commercial arts, arts education, government, and businesses, in creating a healthy environment for the arts.

Cultural Development in Creative Communities (2003) came out right after Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. Published by Americans for the Arts, it cites Portland, Oregon as an example of the new creative city, having “an especially large number of mid-sized and smaller organizations . . . [where] informal arts activities thrive . . . [and] many arts spaces sponsor project based collaborations . . . .” The authors (among others, Bill Bulick and Carol Coletta, current ArtPlace spearheader) continue: “Community asset mapping must encompass this breadth [commercial, nonprofit, and informal] in order to ferret out nodes and catalysts of cultural vibrancy, synergy, and impact.”

The authors recommend developing funding for project-based creative work with individuals and informal groups. They conclude,

The opportunity for our field is to broaden our definitions of culture, maximize participation and engagement, develop a climate that encourages creativity among all citizens, and channel that creativity towards building-and sustaining-our communities.

One of the key findings of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Research into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities (completed as part of a study of culture in Philadelphia in 2009) is that “Personal practice (including creating music or dance, painting or drawing, and sharing photos, music or videos online) is a gateway to attendance.“ The report goes on to cite Steven Tepper’s book Engaging Art, in which he predicts that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the Pro-Am Revolution.”

In Informal Arts: Finding Cohesion, Capacity and Other Cultural Benefits in Unexpected Places (2002), Alaka Wali and colleagues make a convincing case that there is mutual benefit and reinforcement flowing between the informal and formal arts. The formally trained teachers and group leaders often derive benefits from teaching, such as new ways of thinking about techniques or ideas and hands-on experience in organizing and administrating. The students and less skilled artists benefit from the formal training of their teachers and gain inspiration from performances and exhibitions at formal arts institutions. Informal activities can also serve as incubators for experimental ideas in the arts.  Wali et al. recommend that the informal arts be incorporated into community development, that institutions that already intersect with informal arts be supported in expanding that activity, and that arts advocacy be built across informal-formal divides.

Barriers between Theory and Practice

It’s clear that many grantmakers and arts agencies agree that the path to a healthy, sustainable local arts ecosystem will necessarily include informal artists. Yet, their strategies by and large remain focused on nonprofit arts organizations. Research into Action hammers home the need for more programming that encourages personal participation in the arts, but it doesn’t even mention informal arts groups. A recent solicitation of perspectives from of regional arts councils participating in Americans for the Arts’s Local Arts Network yielded several examples of individuals who happened to be amateur artists serving on planning and advisory committees, but little targeting of “informal” artists specifically. Although many informal groups are led by professional artists, it is important to focus on the activity of the informal arts and their amateur practitioners, not simply viewing them as another source of revenue for practicing artists.

To be certain, there are significant barriers that have up to now kept funders from partnering with the informal sector.

  • Visibility Barriers

In the Informal Arts report, Wali et. al. found that informal arts activities tend to fly under everyone’s radar. Activities occurring in “artsy” neighborhoods were more visible in the media than activities occurring in neighborhoods lacking that reputation. Additionally, researchers found no widespread recognition of informal arts practice as a concept within the informal arts world.

This means that it takes considerable effort just to find these groups. Combined with the economies of scale offered by larger nonprofits (enabling them to reach a larger number of beneficiaries), it should come as no surprise that informal artists often seem to escape the notice of arts leaders engaging in cultural planning and policy development efforts.

  • Structural Barriers

The informal arts are—by definition—informal. Most groups are casual in attendance, unselective in ability required, and run by volunteers. They come and go according to availability of resources, popularity of the activity, and dedication of volunteers.  Some have organized leadership and discrete financial accounts, but many do not.

These factors make informal arts groups challenging to work with, especially for funders. Grantmakers are under heavy pressure to show exactly where their grants went and what kind of impact they had. This is difficult if not impossible to do with a group that may or may not exist from year to year. No wonder that when grantmakers do get involved with participatory arts, they often end up “formalizing” the group—building it into another institution.

  • The Quality Barrier

Many, if not most, of the funders that support the arts have the word “excellence” in their mission statements or program guidelines. They want to support, and be associated with, high-quality art. The problem is that high quality participation and high quality art can’t be measured by the same factors. Some informal art is amazing, and some is amateurish in every sense.  If the goal is to create a more sustainable arts ecosystem, however, that means encouraging more people to experience the process of art-making, not just consume amazing art.

Barriers of structure, visibility, and perceived quality keep the informal and formal arts from collaborating at a strategic level.  The result is that informal artists’ voices are rarely heard in discussions about regional development, robbing grantmakers and arts agencies of the valuable information they could contribute about regional culture and what resources they need to thrive.

Folklorists Can Bridge the Gap

As Brendan Greaves points out, folklore is all about process—both the research process and the artistic process. Folklorists first locate practitioners of traditions and ask them about their involvement, in a method known as fieldwork. Some of this fieldwork is structured—that is, a folklorist will start with a list of persons of interest and gradually grow that list by ending each interview with “Who else should I talk to?” Unstructured fieldwork, by contrast, involves exploring an area through any means possible: 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. The first result of such investigation is a list of arts practitioners, making that which was previously invisible, visible.

The second step in this process is to articulate why this tradition is practiced (the artistic process). What motivates the artist? Through interviews, folklorists get the answer to this question in the practitioner’s own words. This is extremely important because it ensures authenticity of the study.

Most often, folklorists have been asked to document cultural traditions that are rooted in community identity. However, the skills and methods described above don’t have to be limited to the realm of folk art. The North Carolina Arts Council demonstrated this when they worked in collaboration with the North Carolina Folklife Institute to map the cultural assets and needs in Wilmington, NC. Folklorists Sarah Bryan and Sally Peterson conducted structured and unstructured fieldwork, along with academic research and a public survey, resulting in a series of documents that outlined existing informal arts groups and distinctive regional traditions and recommended steps to be taken to grow these assets. Notably, this work uncovered informal arts practice across the spectrum of creative activity, including a network of artists employed in the film industry and a genre of music called “holy hip hop.”

Wayne Martin, Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the North Carolina Arts Council, explains that involving folklorists in this project enabled the Arts Council both to identify and begin engagement with artists outside the nonprofit infrastructure, and to understand community culture in an authentic way. “Folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in a variety of forms,” says Martin. “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.”

As beneficial as folklore research is, it has its own set of advantages and disadvantages relative to other methods of community research. This is a labor-intensive method that takes adequate time and human resources to be done well, and some communities that are extremely cosmopolitan might be too overwhelming to take on comprehensively. Furthermore, while folklore research can paint a rich picture of a subset of the community using qualitative data, quantitative data can be more useful for seeing the “big picture” in a region. That being said, folklorists can aid grantmakers and arts agencies in collaborating with informal arts groups by addressing the barriers of structure, visibility, and perceived quality.

-          Research addresses barriers of visibility

Through structured and unstructured fieldwork, folklorists uncover informal artists and groups that don’t have the resources to advertise themselves, making them visible and bringing them to the attention of grantmakers and arts agencies.

-          A collective approach addresses structural barriers

Instead of asking informal arts groups to propose projects that will fit a foundation’s mission, folklorists ask what resources they need to operate and grow and who they collaborate with.  By approaching the informal arts as a collection of individuals and groups, folklorists could help foundations and arts agencies identify resources the sector needs as a whole, instead of trying to work with each specific group.

-          Focus on process and participants addresses the “quality” barrier

The informal arts place more of an emphasis on the process of creating and experiencing art, not only on the “excellence” of the finished piece. A folklorist’s focus on the artistic process (why art is created, how it is created) as well as the process by which it is shared and experienced with others, gets at the reasons people participate, and how and why they bring their art to their community. It is imperative to know why and how people participate in these informal arts if foundations and arts policymakers seek to encourage such participation.

The Irvine Foundation’s new Exploring Engagement Fund, accompanied by a white paper written by WolfBrown, is an exciting step towards foundations supporting participatory and informal arts. The study points out various projects being undertaken by arts organizations around the world that embrace and encourage participatory art  (e.g., the Art Gallery of Ontario’s In Your Face open submission art exhibit;  inviting community members to create, perform and witness Headwaters, produced by the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association in rural Georgia; enabling anyone to learn to dance, together, at The Big Dance (2012) in London and the Bal Moderne in Brussels). Although the informal arts are certainly nothing new, it is novel for a leadership institution like the Irvine Foundation to actively encourage this kind of arts participation.

In the 21st century, technology continues to make it easier to learn and practice art. The Pro-Am Revolution has blurred the lines between audience and artist, making arts participation more important than ever to the strength of the arts as a whole. The problem is that funders operate in a wholly different world from the informal arts. Because folklorists already work with the informal arts subgenre of folk arts and music, they are uniquely suited to seek out and find informal artists and groups, learn from them, and report back to grantmakers. Funders and arts policy leaders would do well to turn to folklorists to help them work with and strengthen the informal arts for the benefit of the sector as a whole.

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  1. [...] fantastic discussion of the importance of folklore research and the informal arts.  Reposted from Createquity.com by Crystal [...]

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