Cross-Currents : Art + Manufacturing Strengthening Place


Funding Received: 2012
Multiple, NC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 25, 2013

ArtPlace spoke with Janet Kagan and Jean Greer, Principals of the Public Art Collaborative Art-Force Program, an innovative effort to diversify economic development in rural counties by curating and partnering artists with manufacturers to generate core products and stimulate a community’s social and economic connection to place.

ArtPlace: Looking back over the past month of project activity, what is one lasting insight that you have had that will influence your future work?

Kagan + Greer: Each of the three rural communities in which we are working continue to be extraordinarily generous with their time and energy toward this work, recognizing that the arts are important to social coherence even when art is positioned as an economic driver, which is still novel for many.

What today is considered high craft or fine art was historically always a required skill for self-sufficiency in rural areas - the clay jug, the hand-blown glass for windows, the turned wood bowl for flour, weaving cloth and reeds for fans and screens. Although perhaps a more rudimentary process than what we experience today, success in rural manufacturing was defined and advanced by apprenticeships. That mentoring model is hardly seen these days because online classes and certifications have replaced this historic and successful educational paradigm.

In our work with rural-based manufacturers and artists, we observe and participate in how they communicate with each other, which orbits around artistic form. In fact, artists are continuing to use utilitarian forms and turn them into artful designs and constructions. Artists and manufacturers do not always speak the same language even when they employ the same words! Manufacturers translate these artistic forms into a technological platform because contemporary “products” although artfully conceived are also intended for a broader market than local, personal need. Furthermore, for rural manufacturing to be competitive, these companies must learn to specialize their output and embrace all the necessary tools - from computer aided design programs to laser cutters - to stay profitable and in business.

Today’s rural manufacturing plant relies on specialization in product, team communications, and technology. These are how the “forms” are created and produced. Manufacturing concepts are spliced into quantifiable quality and safety processes that can be mathematically measured by a device or by a drawing. These are engineering, management, and business technologies that can be objectively taught. Whereas the computerization of forms certainly simplifies the on-floor manufacturing protocols, many artists today still create their work by intuitively manipulating form albeit in a context that retains and echoes the beautiful simplicity of earlier utilitarian and aesthetic objects. Profitability is less significant than the search to satisfy and experiment with line, volumes, light and vision.

The successful interface between specialized engineering and mathematical equations, and the imperative for form to dominate or drive the manufacturing process, requires a calibration between the two - a new set of tools that are both physical and attitudinal. In rural communities, these new talents and skills are imperative to local economic survival. Interestingly, there is a parallel operation occurring within rural government. Local leadership is not always able to creatively adapt to make the strategic decisions required for fundamental change. Pressing daily demands and traditional operating policies overshadow attention to important future planning and visioning. Elected and appointed officials require an experiential training and a sense of security that together lead to new civic ideas and directions. Bold leadership will determine whether rural communities can more effectively achieve economic stability and innovative positioning for growth. The equations may be risky yet the arts have proven to be a unifying and powerful force; animating the static and uncovering years of stored memories and future promise.