Rural Art and Culture Yields Big Impact 
A Conversation between Savannah Barrett, Art of the Rural and Judi Jennings, KY Foundation for Women, January 18, 2014

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How are rural artists and cultural workers creating positive social change locally and nationally?

Recently, Art of the Rural, a collaborative organization that helps build the field of rural arts, partnered with the Kentucky Foundation for Women to explore this question.  Savannah Barrett, Program Director of, AOTR and Dr, Judi Jennings, KFW’s Executive Director, worked closely together to create Feminist Art: Advancing Social Change in Rural Kentucky, an innovative digital mapping project documenting the powerful and transformative work taking place across rural Kentucky. Here, Barrett and Jennings reflect on how this digital tool demonstrates the impact of rural artists and cultural workers and the need for more equitable funding. To achieve equity, rural people must be at the table in current national conversations about the social change impact of art and culture.

Rural artists and culture workers are challenging stereotypes

Jennings: There is an old joke that Kentucky is known for fast women and beautiful horses. But now, feminist artists, especially in rural areas, are presenting new visions of women, beauty and positive social change in our state. KFW’s mission is to advance positive social change in Kentucky by supporting varied feminist expression in the arts. The art and cultural work presented on the digital map that is part of AOTR’s Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture challenges viewers locally and nationally to re-examine their understanding of Kentucky.


Barrett: I worked with KFW to identify more than 40 women from rural areas and small towns throughout the state who contributed digital samples of their artmaking and cultural work.  All of the projects were supported in part by the KFW, which annually awards $200,000 in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $7,500 to individuals and small organizations through two annual grant programs, Artist Enrichment and Art Meets Activism. The map, showing the location of each of the artists and a sample of her work, demonstrates the diversity of content, process, and medium being utilized across the state. 


Rural artists and cultural workers are imagining a better future for all

Jennings: Feminist artists and cultural change-makers working in rural communities are creating new visions of life in Kentucky, These women and others like them are redefining gender roles and tapping into the power of art and culture to enrich their own lives and the lives of middle school girls, women inmates, female cadets and army wives. 

Barrett: The Atlas project introduces Kentucky women to new audiences nationwide, but also has the power to help folks visualize artists there as contemporary and innovative. Augmenting the rural arts field is part of our mission, and we hope that viewers will not only gain a greater understanding of the breath of work being produced across rural landscapes, but discover projects, artists, and organizations that are worthy of collaboration across geographical boundaries.


Rural artists and cultural workers are affected by inequitable funding patterns

Barrett: Studies show that 16 percent of the population is rural, but there is a substantial disparity in funding to this sector of the population. If resource investment were evenly distributed across the United States based on per-capita rationale, rural Americans would have enjoyed an additional $28 billion of investment in 2010.

Jennings: In 2011, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, a report by Holly Sidford for the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, documented structural disparities in funding. The report shows how large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million per year make up 2% of the universe of arts and cultural organizations but receive more than 50% of foundation funding.


Awareness of funding inequities and partnership building can strengthen rural arts and culture and support positive social change

Barrett: Matthew Fluharty, Director of Art of the Rural, points out that, "While the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture can help individuals across Rural America understand how they are connected to each other, an organization's individual project map within this larger endeavor, like the one for Kentucky, can also offer to its grantmakers a visualization of the return on investment, and the impact that such work can have across geographies and disciplines. 

Jennings:  I hope that the mapping project we did in Kentucky can serve as a useful prototype for other arts and cultural funders committed to equitable philanthropic practices. Equity in funding is a key to creative social change. KFW creates hope and validation for rural feminists and provides resources for artists, activists and allies who dare to imagine a better Kentucky.  When feminist art is combined with compassionate community building the power and possibility of social change is made real. KFW is anchored in the fundamental belief that when women and girls advance, so does Kentucky. 

Barrett: Through the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group, Art of the Rural is witnessing unlikely partnerships across states and regions that are producing exciting new projects together. The power of these Atlas projects transcends the static digital mapping process because it not only provides a platform to tell the stories of rural artists and organizations, but provides opportunities for visibility among similar organizations across the nation that can result in a stronger national network of rural artists. One ultimate goal of greater visibility and a stronger network is more equitable philanthropic funding that can create a stronger future for all. To paraphrase the Kentucky Foundation for Women, when rural areas advance, so does the U.S.

For more information about the Feminist Art: Advancing Social Change in Rural Kentucky project, visit,, or the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture.

Savannah Barrett earned a Masters in Arts Management at the University of Oregon. She is a passionate advocate for arts access in geographically and economically isolated places, and serves as Program Director for the Art of the Rural.

Judi Jennings became Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women in 1998. Before that she worked at the Kentucky Humanities Council and Appalshop, arts and education center in Whitesburg. She is a national advocate for equity in arts and cultural funding.

More images and stories on The Art of the Rural website. All images used by permission of the artists funded by the Kentucky Foundation for Women