How Is WashArts Boosting Access to Arts Education in Rural Communities?

Have you ever tried to order Chinese food at 11 pm in a town without a stop light? Probably not, and that's because it's impossible. Our mythical rural town does not have a Chinese food restaurant and does not exist.

We all love rural communities for the peace and quiet, but there's sometimes a trade-off to be made, one that's bit more compromising than being unable to itch your late-night craving for General Tso's Chicken.

Rural communities have less access to the arts. It's a fact of life, a byproduct of geographic isolation, infrastructure limitations, and population flight. Fortunately, state agencies are acutely aware of this problem. According to a recent report by he National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, while 17 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, 25 percent of all state arts agency grants go to these communities. But state funding alone won't solve the problem.

Enter the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which serves West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania. The foundation recently awarded a $200,000 grant to help Washington, Pennsylvania-based WashArts coordinate a program designed to recruit teaching artists and organize a variety of activities at several rural districts around the area.

Now before you start imagining a bus of artists taking 12-hour trek into the wilds of southwest Pennsylvania while that banjo from Deliverance plays in the background, it's important to understand that the city of Washington technically falls within the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. This is a good thing, because as we all know, the Steel City is a vibrant arts mecca. It's good to have reservoir of talent to draw from.

And so the money will be used to bring artists out to the further corners of the surrounding counties. The initiative will complement existing in-classroom programs as well as after-school activities, which is encouraging in and of itself. In an age widespread cuts to in-school arts education, WashArts Director Becky Keck noted that the program will "enhance, not replace" classroom curriculum.

Grant money will also fund organizing the groups, training the artists, offering stipends, and marketing the concept to the community. The program began in January and is scheduled to continue until mid-2016, although Keck hopes it will last long after that.

All in all, this grant represents a deceptively simple and elegant solution to the spate of arts education cuts and lack of access to arts education in rural communities, particularly for school districts near sprawling cities: bring the artists to the kids.