America: Now and Here
Barnstorming through "hub cities," including Washington, Des Moines, Seattle, Memphis, Kansas City and LA, the exhibit will pass through eight regions each year, spending six weeks at each location. Fischl says the semitrailer approach should give people the feeling that the circus is coming to town—a decidedly nonelitist, all-are-welcome piece of imagery. This will be a popular exhibit, after all, one that is attempting to dissolve the perceived walls between the artistic "elite" and the salt-of-the-earth masses. There is an unfair preconception, says Dunn, that "culture" is the unique province of New York and LA, San Francisco and Washington. She points out that, given the enormous costs of launching a play, an art show or a performance in New York, "Middle America" already has some of the most fertile artistic soil in the country, with a latent talent and flair that ANH seeks to cultivate.
The project is receiving enthusiastic though nonmonetary support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kennedy Center and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, channeling cultural awareness from the littoral to the heartland. It's an analogue to the Federal Project Number One component of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, which included such programs as the Federal Writers' Project, the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Art Project. "We're WPA without the 'A,'" explains Dunn, emphasizing that ANH's scope is all the more distinctive for deriving an organic impetus from the energy of regular citizens, not from an executive dictum born in Washington.
To this end, a key component of ANH—and something Dunn and Fischl hope will be part of the exhibit's lasting legacy—is the creation of Artist Corps, a program that will provide students and emerging artists the opportunity to inject themselves, and their towns, into an inclusive artistic community. "We want to position creativity at the core of society, not the margins," explains Dunn. Artist Corps will draw young visionaries from all corners of the country. Though Fischl admits that, unlike Roosevelt's WPA, "America: Now and Here" doesn't explicitly seek to put Americans to work, it should let Americans rediscover the opportunities afforded to them by an artistic heritage that has been subjugated by close-mindedness and fear. "The WPA is a great model of what we're trying to do," he says. The Federal Project Number One introduced millions of Americans to one another through music, arts and letters; ideally, ANH will do the same.
A hub city's metropolis will be merely the first stop at each location. In each region, the itinerary calls for two weeks in the city center, one week each in two smaller towns, one week at a state or community college and one week at a military base. The idea is to get people talking about art, to remind Americans that "American" art is as much theirs as it is anyone else's. To Dunn, the exhibit is "aggressively patriotic"; for Fischl, this means willfully expelling the strident nationalism that has passed for patriotism for the past decade and replacing it with something more constructive and positive—in his words, a brand of patriotism that's interesting and fun, strange and fabulous.
Fischl wants "America: Now and Here" to remind people that art can and should work for the populace rather than despite it. "If communities make demands on artists, which is easier than you'd think," he says, "and ask them to be a part of civic life, the artists will agree. If people want it, art can be a central part of their lives." ANH's art is specifically designed to be ecumenical and accessible, a move away from the confrontational, eff-you aggression of the culture wars (though Andres Serrano, the visual artist of Piss Christ fame, is a contributor). The exhibit will feature 3,300 square feet of exhibition space, sixteen listening stations, an outdoor screening area for movies and a venue for actors to perform live monologues and scenes by American dramatists.
T.S. Eliot further described William Blake's poetry as maintaining "a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant." If "America: Now and Here" replaces just a little bit of the nation's disquiet and tension with honesty—even a "peculiar" brand of honesty—it will have served its purpose.