By Shawn Pitts
It has been my great honor to write a series of articles for the Independent Appeal on the occasions of Arts in McNairy’s twentieth anniversary. Conference organizers have often invited me to offer reflections on the unlikely success of a nonprofit arts agency in a rural county like McNairy, but I rarely get to share those insights here at home. I thought a few observations on the subject would be a fitting way to bring these guest columns to a close.
One reason I am frequently asked to talk about Arts in McNairy’s success over the past two decades is its rarity. The speaking and writing invitations that come my way are almost exclusively directed toward assisting other rural arts developers identify and avoid common pitfalls and make the most of the cultural opportunities unique to their communities. Arts in McNairy didn’t necessarily crack the code on rural arts development but I believe there are a number of reasons the organization succeeded where others became frustrated and threw in the towel. Here are my top three:
Community Focus—If I had to pick one thing that sets AiM apart, it would be the unflinching efforts of the organization’s leadership to maintain focus on the community. That’s not as simple as it may sound. Many nonprofits devolve over time to serve their own narrow interests, but focusing internally rather than externally, is the kiss of death for organizations who purport to serve the community. Those who support AiM can rest assured that every dollar spent, every decision made, every volunteer mobilized is in the interest of making the arts an integral part of life in McNairy County. One of the organization’s founding principles is that a community is only healthy when opportunities for all citizens to participate in the arts abound. I was on a conference panel with former County Mayor, Jai Templeton, several years ago when he was asked to share his perspective on AiM’s success. I deeply appreciated his response. “Arts in McNairy is not a one issue organization,” he observed. He clarified by commending AiM for its broad community involvement and partnerships with local government and other area nonprofits. AiM’s primary mission was always about the arts, but Jai recognized the organization’s emphasis on collaborating to create a more engaged community on every front.
Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion—Very early in the organization’s development it was acknowledged that creativity, in all its forms, should be respected and included in programming. It is the right thing to do, but it also helped the program committees reach underserved audiences and bring in voices and art forms that might have been neglected otherwise. Where many rural arts agencies concern themselves with a single discipline (painting, theatre, etc.) AiM functions as an umbrella arts agency offering programs in an ever-broadening variety of creative endeavor. You would be hard pressed to find many arts agencies in the rural South who have presented community programs in, music, visual arts, literature, theatre, dance, puppetry, digital media, film, folklife, culinary arts, creative writing, arts education, cultural history, spoken word, and more. Similarly, as the organization has grown and evolved, the leadership has constantly sought to widen its reach to ensure that all community members are represented in programming and decision making, regardless of race, age, ability or socioeconomic status. The arts are for everyone, and a dedicated committee now advises the AiM board on issues of inclusion, access and diversity.
Commitment to the Cause—Space would not permit me to name the hundreds of committed individuals who have contributed their time, expertise, and resources to make Arts in McNairy a success over the years. From the first meetings held to gage interest in forming a local arts agency in 2000 and 2001, it was apparent that the community was hungry for new cultural programs, and we have never been without artists, leaders, volunteers, donors and enthusiastic audiences to make them happen. Some may have doubted that McNairy County was capable of developing and sustaining a vibrant creative community, but they severely underestimated the commitment of their neighbors to cultivate a welcoming environment for the arts and artists of every variety. We owe a debt of gratitude to a community that embraced the AiM mission from the outset, especially those who rolled up their sleeves and went to work for a cause larger than themselves. It has paid off ten times over.
I sometimes hear people say nothing ever changes in McNairy County, but they are dead wrong, and I am tired of hearing that stale, old mantra. It’s insulting to people who’ve worked tirelessly to make positive impact on our community and I immediately tune out anyone regurgitating that false claim. I could cite AiM accomplishments and brag on the people who made them possible for another ten columns without scratching the surface. I could tell many stories about how the arts have positively impacted lives and transformed the futures of local students. I could give hard data and statistics showing improved economic conditions attributable to sustained community cultural development. I could line up witnesses around the block who would gladly confirm every detail. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty years of community building, it’s this: you can’t solve a problem for people in love with the problem and you’ll only burn yourself out trying.
Arts in McNairy has had an incredible, historic run over the past two decades and I could not be more proud of this community and the individuals, businesses and elected officials who saw the potential in a grassroots movement to build creative community and possessed the foresight and resolve to see it through. This is a better community than it was twenty years ago and I expect even greater things over the course of the next twenty years. Trust me when I say, the arts are here to stay.
This post originally appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal