The Art of Being Regional

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It’s not easy being regional. You may have heard of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), especially in the 1990s when it unwittingly found itself on the front lines of the Culture Wars. And you may know there is a state arts agency in each of the 50 states. In between the federal and state levels there are six regional arts organizations which help the nation and the states by doing smart, creative things that strengthen the arts. Those six RAOs, as they’re known by insiders, are meeting here in Baltimore at the Admiral Fell Inn. I served on the board of one of them, the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) for 10 years, and last year I joined the board of another, the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA). I love coming to these meetings of the six regionals, because the executive directors are passionate about their work, and I always learn things.

The theme for this meeting is stories. We have an excellent facilitator, Toby Herzlich from Santa Fe, who invited us to tell stories at the opening dinner last night. We went around the table, telling tales that had shape because they followed the lives of real people encountering art in their lives. We noticed that many of the stories had to do with projects at the fringes of mainstream culture, where so much vibrant cultural activity takes place, with so many challenges. David Fraher, executive director of Arts Midwest, described a project of photography from the surprisingly large community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis. It was clear that art in this instance holds the promise of bridging wildly diverse histories and cultures, but also that the job isn’t easy. Trust is the key. Without it, a high-minded effort to bridge differences through art can descend into painful misunderstandings. David presses forward, and we urge him on.

I’m hoping that my fellow regional types will be comfortable moving part of our proceedings onto the internet today. I created a broadcast feed for The Regional Arts Show, so feel free to drop by and see if the camera is on. Or go to and look for the show under the “Watch” tab. There will be stories from north, south, east and west. It won’t look much like art, but you’ll know that’s why we’re all here.

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