The New Rural Arts – artistic autonomy or critical engagement?
What defines the New Rural Arts is not a single aesthetic ideology or set of curatorial or theoretical orthodoxies. Rather, it seems to currently function best as an open ended diversity of practices and curatorial tactics which are, as yet, untrammelled by arts development-speak or bureaucratic logic. However, it may be possible to obtain an overview of this work, or at least spark off further debate around the subject, by grouping the various working methods and projects according to some general orientations or attitudes currently evident with such work. These include an interest in:
(1) addressing a wide range of interdisciplinary, practical and creative solutions to some of the underlying or core social, economic and environmental problems and issues confronting farming and rural communities;
(2) working on long term collaborative projects with farmers and rural communities and also employing more ‘immersive’ , as opposed to, interventionist practices in pursuit of these ends;
(3) deepening practitioner engagement in trying to understand and respond to some of the underlying ethical, aesthetic, critical and philosophical issues also evident in agricultural, countryside and rural development issues and related public discourses;
(4) achieving a closer alignment of individual art practices and curatorial/arts development strategies with other key policy agendas and targets relating to promoting rural development, agriculture reform, creative economy, and environmental sustainability in the countryside;
(5) supporting, in principle, the RCF’s three main cultural responsibility campaigns including the ‘Beyond the Rural’ proposals for the establishment of an urban rural coalition for a cultural strategy for environmental sustainability;
(6) a willingness, where necessary, to forgo purely art world careerist concerns and/or the production of finite art works as the prime motivating concerns for critical and aesthetic engagement in rural contexts, or with rural communities.
Again, there is no suggestion here that artists must follow these ‘orientations’ absolutely. Or, indeed, that artists should somehow be compelled to work only on social, environmental and economic issue and outcomes. Artists do not work like that and would naturally veer away from any hint of orthodoxy or attempt at instrumentalisation of their creativity or work. The New Rural Arts is an open field and the opportunities and support are there for those artists and practitioners who might, however, be interested in addressing new critical contexts for their work, and/or in taking on new creative and intellectual challenges.
Working with professional artists
The RCF has a long standing interest in supporting and working with urban and rural artists. An important part of the Forum’s campaigning and arts development role is directed to securing new funding opportunities and resources for artists, designers, writers and craftspeople working and living in rural areas. The RCF is also supportive of artists, researchers and cultural practitioners interested in working collaboratively with farming and rural communities, and in developing new responses to issues relating to community development, promoting biodiversity in the countryside, and agricultural reform (RDPE). The RCF committee includes representatives from leading national rural arts and media companies including the Rural Media Company, Hereford and the LITTORAL Arts Trust, Lancashire.
Artists on the land: developing successful collaborations with rural communities
Artists and rural communities would also benefit by having a new rural arts support service or centre to provide information and help with project partnerships. Many artists interested in getting involved in work with rural communities do not come from farming or rural backgrounds, and could use guidance on where to work and how to set up collaborative projects. Similarly, rural communities could use help and advice regarding selection of artists, and in structuring projects and commissions that suit their particular needs and aspirations. The RCF is in a position to provide these support services and, if the the rural cultural strategy were implemented, these coudd be later expanded into a new rural arts professional development and training programme.
What are the New Rural Arts?
Artists have always taken an interest in the countryside and rural life, and regional rural and agricultural landscapes have provided the inspiration for much great art over the centuries. Established rural arts and rural touring organisations have for many years been active in developing new audiences for the arts in rural areas, and undertaking collaborative projects with rural communities. The voluntary arts sector is another active presence in rural areas, and has contributed much to expanding amateur engagement in the arts and related community capacity building initiatives in rural areas. However, given the radical nature of the changes now impacting on rural communities and the agricultural sector, there is a need for the professional arts and cultural sector to develop arts practices and curatorial strategies capable of addressing the social, economic and environmental problems now emerging. In essence these make up the bulk of the professional and intellectual terms of reference for the New Rural Arts. Further information on the defining characteristics of new rural arts practice is outlined in The New Rural Arts Strategy report (Arts Council England/LITTORAL Arts, 2004).
Socially engaged rural art – public art in rural contexts
The outlines of a new Rural Arts tradition are also evident in the role currently played by artists and craftspeople in the development of the creative rural economy and in the areas of rural cultural tourism, rural heritage, farm diversification, and new rural media and digital art. Although urban in origin, other new art genres such as ecological art, new genre public art, socially engaged art and relational art are also increasing being deployed by artists and curators in rural and agricultural contexts. The RCF sees these emergent genres as also critical to delivery of the various strands of the proposed rural cultural strategy, and is encouraging the Arts Council to recognise this work an important new field of contemporary art practice, requiring further study, professional development and resourcing.
Documenting the New Rural Arts – new contexts for arts theory and policy
The RCF has begun documenting this work, and is engaging in dialogue with pioneering rural artists and rural arts groups around the country to try to establish a professional network and central documentation and information resource. The field of practice is expanding rapidly, and needs to develop guidelines for theoretical evaluation, which could result in new aesthetic insights, vital to its future sustainability as a genre. This work has important implications for current arts development in rural areas, and could be used to inform the discourse on rural cultural policy.
In the context of the proposed Rural Cultural Strategy (assuming the necessary funding and resources become available) the RCF is considering four main areas in support of the New Rural Arts:
1. Curating rural resilience: exploring new urban rural cultural interfaces
2. Documentation: towards a pedagogy and theory for the new rural arts
3. Growing the creative rural economy, and innovative arts-led farm diversification projects
4. Interventions in the policy sphere: linking future rural development and cultural policy discourses
Some examples of pioneering New Rural Arts projects, and other arts groups engaged in similar work
Aune Head Arts, Devon
Deveron Arts, Aberdeenshire
Grizedale Arts, Cumbria
Steve Messam, Cumbria
National Rural Touring Forum
The Owl Project