Food Chain

Wormfarm Institute

Funding Received: 2012
Sauk County, WI
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
December 13, 2013

The Grand Masticator, Farm/Art DTour Installation by Karl Unnasch; photo by Aaron Dysert

Wormfarm staff, partners and volunteers are still catching up on sleep and neglected chores after working for most of a year on Fermentation Fest and its offspring - Food Chain. Early returns suggest it was a remarkable success. See news article here.

It’s now time for the less sexy part: taking measurements, evaluating what worked, what didn’t, and finding the best ways to build and sustain.

We’ve been able to draw a broad swath of the population to our Live Culture Convergence - folks attracted for different reasons—contemporary art, local food, education, a drive in the country. We will hold focus groups and use various tools to gauge economic impact. But what else comprises success? It depends on who you ask. If evidence shows everyone had a pleasant day and went home, I would say we failed, yet some of our valued partners may feel differently. On the other hand, a challenging artwork that gives rise to spirited discussion, conflicting opinions, and puzzlement over the point of it all would count, in my view as evidence of success. A previously skeptical or even hostile business owner who could no longer ignore the improvement to his bottom line was willing to let us know about. This it is success we can all agree on.

The larger vision is far from being fully realized. Its future depends on strong local support and we’ve made great progress. For a project based on the concept of transformation to shift shape over time is consistent with its theme and with the laws of nature. If it doesn’t last for a decade—is it a failure? Or might it mutate into a successful something else?

Recent Wins
-- A big one! The elected board of county supervisors voted to include Fermentation Fest into the Sauk County budget for 2014 as part of a match for a $100,000 NEA Our Town grant. It will be part of a countywide placemaking strategy embraced by the economic development authority and 3 local chambers of commerce – with arts at its core!

-- Another big one: An article in the New York Times !

-- Food Chain sites became mini festivals on the DTour and partners using Roadside Culture Stands generated significant income.

-- Rogue installations are what we now call them—creative participation by landowners along the DTour. In many cases we don’t know who made them but they popped up in response to the official (8) commissioned art installations and this year there were 12 of them ranging from a giant cheese to antique tractor collections.

Insight/ Provocation
One can’t think about success without acknowledging its evil twin. At a recent conference Jennifer Wright Cook of the Field in NYC gave a presentation on To Fail and to Fail Big, a thoughtful study of midcareer NY performing artists and the ever-present specter of failure—the flip side of success. At the core of any new endeavor it lurks in the wings. Fear of failure often leads to timid half measures or seeking safety in the familiar. This option though at times attractive, carries no power to inspire. Risk and the notion of failure are crucial to the creative process and we’ve been there before.

Risk becomes a more complex issue when dealing with community partners and rising stakes. Past Wormfarm initiatives that failed to thrive meant we learned a valuable lesson about our timing, tactics or capacity, reworked our strategy and moved on. We take our cue from the high tech wizards out there who are urged to ‘fail fast’ as the proven path to ultimate success. We’re ok with it in our low-tech Luddite way as past failures leave a fertile place behind for the next hare-brained scheme. More recently we collaborate with established entities like the Chamber of Commerce, County Extension or business partners, where the suggestion that failure may be an outcome is less than welcome. As a result the impulse to remain in the safe zone becomes even stronger and is communicated in a myriad of subtle and not so subtle ways.

The push to become more inclusive with programming, including more children’s activities, employing established tropes (e.g. barn quilts) or to make sure that local artists are represented cannot be discounted, but must be balanced with a reach towards excellence: the innovative, the challenging and the provocative. This push is what keeps the artists and the organizers at the top of their game and where, I believe, vibrancy lives. Can we do both—keep the visionaries excited at the possibilities and the community caretakers at ease with the range of outcomes?

Don’t know yet.