The Festival as Art

The Too Many String Band performs.

The Too Many String Band performs at Rurally Good.

This past weekend Arts Council staff hit the road to Grinnell for the Rurally Good Festival, a yearly event conceived of by a group of energetic artists and organizers.

The festival’s name is a nod to its rural setting, a 320-acre family farm turned artist colony guided by founder and co-director Joe Lacina. Lacina began the project, called Grin City Collective, in 2006 and along with co-director Molly Rideout has established it as Iowa’s only dedicated, year-round artist residency program.

Grin City artists in residence spend a season on the farm and span traditional disciplines such as creative writing, music composition, and visual arts.  Like most residencies, of which there are now an estimated 500 in the U.S., Grin City provides artists with valuable space and time for testing out new ideas and deepening their artistic process.

That’s where traditional ends.  While Grin City is nicely-equipped with studios for writers and sculptors (including several in a space formerly reserved for tofu production), there’s also an outdoor hut for meditation and sound experimentation.  And unlike many residencies outside urban areas, which tend to promote artists working in relative isolation, Grin City aims to foster connection and collaboration among residents and the surrounding community.

Case in point:  a local blacksmith works on-site and shares his tools and knowledge with visitors, and residents help tend to a large-scale garden and community-supported agriculture program.

Grin City welding

An attendee tries his hand at the metal forge.

Grin City’s goal is to extend an ethos of service and volunteerism, so prevalent in this close-knit college town on the prairie, into the realm of art.  As the program notes, it welcomes “artists who seek to place their work in a social context.”

This fits within a larger trend of increased social engagement in art, resurgent within the art world in recent years and in Iowa. The trend takes many forms (artist collectives, artist-driven events, and artist-run spaces) and names (“social practice” being the latest) with the common element often being an experience where the ingredients of art – chiefly, artists, audiences and the creation of meaning – come together and, in many cases, are quite indistiguishable.

Across Iowa’s arts and culture landscape, Ames’ Maximum Music Festival, Iowa City’s Public Space One, and Grin City’s Rurally Good are all working in this vein and engaging new audiences along the way.