Luis Jovel, a fourth generation cowboy boot and shoemaker, used to drive regularly from his home in Fresno to Mendota to teach traditional Salvadoran folk dancing to fellow immigrants, particularly children.
It was something Jovel did with his sister, for free, in order to pass on important cultural traditions and give youth of Salvadoran descent a sense of collective identity. But as the price of gas rose, it became too expensive to make the roughly 80 mile round trip, and Jovel had to stop.
"If arts groups want to have greater engagement with their communities, and more public support, this study points out avenues for them. They need to start looking for more points of relevance."
– Alan Brown, principal at WolfBrown and co-author of
"Cultural Engagement in California's Inland Regions"
"I couldn't afford it. I didn't have the money. I was doing it from my pocket," said Jovel, adding that he would continue teaching but for the cost. "I have a list of 24 kids who want to learn."
Jovel is just the sort of local cultural role model who should receive more support from established arts organizations and grantmaking institutions, according to a thought-provoking new study recently published by The James Irvine Foundation. Titled "Cultural Engagement in California's Inland Regions," the report is an effort to better understand culture and community in California's San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire.
Based on two major surveys of more than 6,000 people, the report documents a wide range of cultural activity — in music, theater and drama, reading and writing, dance, and visual arts and crafts — happening outside of the boundaries of the traditional infrastructure of nonprofit arts organizations and facilities in two fast-growing and increasingly diverse inland regions of the state.
The authors challenge cultural providers and funders to adopt a more inclusive definition of arts and culture, and to embrace outreach strategies to "level the playing field" in terms of accessibility by supporting family-based, faith-based, heritage-based and participatory arts activities. That is the only way to serve people who likely will never enter a museum or attend a play in a traditional theater, the authors suggest.
"If funders and policy makers hope to broaden cultural engagement, especially in non-metropolitan areas, they must consider supporting programs that engage people in their own cultural spaces, in their homes and neighborhoods, on the Internet and even in their cars," the report states. "These spaces … are at the frontier of arts engagement in the 21st Century."
“Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions” cites research that suggests that old ways of measuring arts participation focus too much on passive forms of engagement, such as attending performances and visiting museums, and fail to incorporate participatory forms of engagement which are more prevalent among immigrants and people of color.
The report focused on four modes of engagement, including creating art or writing music; interpreting pre-existing art, such as dance or performing music; "curating" existing art, including downloading music or collecting; and observing art or live performances. It also carefully considered where cultural engagement is occurring, whether in the family, churches, cultural or ethnic heritage settings, arts schools, traditional arts venues, and community venues such as parks, community centers or even retail centers and restaurants.
Researchers found that personal interest in arts activities was high, regardless of educational attainment. They documented strong interest in a wide variety of activities, from composing music to cooking traditional or ethnic foods to attending community dances. Their report boldly suggests that the emergence of "curatorial" arts activities is changing the landscape of cultural engagement, with young people and an increasing number of adults selecting, organizing and editing the art in their lives.
One of the more surprising and encouraging observations of the study is that a third of all respondents indicated an unfulfilled interest in taking dance lessons. The authors suggest looking at the role of privately owned dance studios, schools and places of worship in the dance system.
Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and one of the report’s authors, pointed to people like Vungping Yang, a Hmong musician who came to the United States from Laos in 1979 and teaches Hmong traditional dance to high school students in Fresno, as the type of person who can help fill that demand for his community.
"This study shows that these two regions are in no way a cultural wasteland as they are sometimes portrayed," Kitchener said. "But that doesn't mean that the cultural system doesn't need support. It is also a fragile ecosystem."
The report also notes that public and private investment in culture has tended to support observational engagement, but that modes of engagement in which the individual has a larger amount of creative control serve vital roles in the creative lives of the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley residents and merit significant support.
Much of the cultural engagement, Kitchener said, was found to occur in spaces not traditionally considered as arts venues. In particular, the study found that the home far exceeds theaters, museums and galleries as the most common setting for cultural activities including music, dance, and visual arts and crafts.
In addition, the authors say that promoting family-based activities can promote family cohesion, positive role-modeling, enhanced communication skills, creative development among children and higher likelihood that children will attend arts programs when adults. They say a precondition to achieving a broad-scale impact from family-based arts activities is wider availability of raw materials of creativity, including musical instruments and toys, arts supplies, building materials, books about creative games to play, and of course, teaching artists and other cultural role models.
The import of the findings is clear, said Alan Brown, a principal at WolfBrown, who directed much of the research. "If arts groups want to have greater engagement with their communities, and more public support, this study points out avenues for them,” he said. "They need to start looking for more points of relevance in their communities."