Introducing the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange

By Savannah Barrett and Josh May

The Commonwealth of Kentucky has tremendous human, natural, and cultural resources. We are rich in opportunity, but historically, real and imagined barriers between regions in the state have prevented  these resources from being developed equitably. There are strong cultural associations with five regions throughout the state which rarely acknowledge their shared social and economic futures. The most significant of these historic cultural divides takes place along the borders between rural and urban Kentucky, which are essentially dependent on and decidedly ambivalent towards one another.

At a time of significant regional economic transition, we have an unprecedented and critical opportunity to make the case for community-based arts as a driving force in local economic development. The idea  behind the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange was to bring together a diverse group of our state’s most innovative young leaders to build shared knowledge and collaborative power. Together, we can provide a unified platform to actualize new models of community-driven development throughout the state.


Carcassone Square Dance at Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival.
Photo Credit: Rachel Hagan, Art of the Rural Intern

This summer, Art of the Rural and Appalshop convened thirty-six community leaders in Whitesburg, Kentucky for the inaugural Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange. Sixteen matches of artists, organizers, chefs, farmers, musicians, filmmakers, archivists, cultural workers, politicians, and business owners came together from Whitesburg and Louisville.

The matches were conscientiously paired by Art of the Rural and Appalshop based on both professional work and personal interests, and were aligned within one of three cohorts essential to a regional placemaking strategy: Arts and Culture, Small-scale Agriculture and Food Systems, and Local Economies and Small business. While many sectors and networks are contributing to each region’s growth, we believe that these cohorts are scaling efforts that not only provide economic impact, but promote the promise of place-based development that improves the quality of life in each community.

Over three days, matches got to know one another as friends and collaborators. We visited workplaces, hangouts, gardens, and homes. We watched Appalshop films and celebrated June Appal Records at the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival, danced along to Lee Sexton’s famous Carcassone square dance band, and watched the Mayor of Vicco sing along with a Louisville rock and roll band. Together, we ate at favorite restaurants, swam in lakes, and hiked Pine Mountain. Then, we focused on our common issues, visions, and realities.

Exchange matches get to know one another during the What’s Cookin’ Now/Wiltshire Pantry collaborative brunch.

Exchange matches get to know one another during the What’s Cookin’ Now/Wiltshire Pantry collaborative brunch.
Photo Credit: Rachel Hagan, Art of the Rural Intern

We’re working towards investment in Kentucky’s common ground. We came together to build understanding, mutual concern, and human relationships between key members of creative communities across the Commonwealth. Together, we are creating a space for dialogue about shared interest, and aim to identify opportunities for collaboration and mutuality.

The Rural-Urban Exchange group is working on new projects over the summer. Already, matches are coordinating incredible regional collaborations. As a result of the exchange, matches are working on investment strategies for an specialty hotel in Whitesburg; Alan Lomax Archive repatriation events across Kentucky; dual broadcasts and shared programming on community radio stations; a series of videos featuring rural and urban Kentucky artists; the release of new cultural material celebrating our shared heritage; and the exchange of knowledge, resources, and cultural traditions through events and co-attended convenings.

Exchange match Jenny Williams leads the group on a hike at Pine Mountain.

Exchange match Jenny Williams leads the group on a hike at Pine Mountain.
Photo Credit: Rachel Hagan, Art of the Rural Intern

This initial Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange cohort will reconvene in Louisville September 19-21, 2014 during the Association for Cultural Equity’s Kentucky Repatriation event of Alan Lomax’s Eastern Kentucky recordings. The Louisville weekend will include a square dance exchange, a rematch of intergenerational female rock band Juanita and honky-tonk band Giant Rooster Side Show, an excursion to a Louisville farmer’s market, a tour of Olmstead parks, a collaborative meal designed by chefs from Louisville and Whitesburg, and structured programming focused on cohort and group collaborations and network building.

The view from 2015 and beyond: These initial two-person pairings will over time grow into the formation of discipline-specific working groups across the Commonwealth. These working groups will provide opportunities to explore common issues and to advocate for community solutions through both the discipline-based groups and the larger exchange community.

As a Kentuckian you have a stake in this work, as do all of us working together to envision a more equitable relationship between rural and urban America. Please consider joining our effort and supporting the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange. To learn more, contact Savannah Barrett and Josh May at [email protected] and [email protected]

The Rural-Urban Exchange resulted from conversations that began during the Art of the Rural Year of the Rural Arts residency at Appalshop.

Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange group participating in a story circle facilitated by Judi Jennings

Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange group participating in a story circle facilitated by Judi Jennings
Photo Credit: Rachel Hagan, Art of the Rural Intern

Thank you to those who’ve invested in our work to unite Kentuckians in our shared future:

The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and Heine Brothers Coffee
Art of the Rural and Appalshop
What’s Cookin Now and Wiltshire Pantry
Tyler McDaniels, videographer
Rachel Hagan, Exchange Intern

2014 Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange Matches:

Josh May (Appalshop and Roundabout Music Co.) /  Savannah Barrett (Art of the Rural)
Caroline Rubens (Appalshop) / Heather Fox (UofL Photo Archives, Juanita)
Ada Smith (Appalshop) / Nick Covault (Kentucky Center for the Performing
John Haywood (Parlor Room Tattoo Shop) / Jesse Lucas (Forest Giant Design Firm)
Brian Dunn (Appalachian Media Institute) / Rachel Hagan (Art of the Rural Intern)
Kim Owsley (Healer) / Myron Hardesty (Weeds of Eden)
Randy Wilson (Hindman Settlement School) / Alex Udis (Americana Community Center, LOTSA)
Amelia Kirby (Summit City, Appalachian Citizens Law Center) / Aron Conaway (the Mammoth, Nelligan Hall)
Brett Ratliff (Hindman Settlement School) / Nathan Salsburg (the Assoc. of Cultural Equity)
Zhivko Illeief (Roadside Theater) / Tyler McDaniels (filmmaker)
Dave Fisher (Railroad Street Mercantile) / Summer Auerbach (Rainbow Blossom, LIBA)
Tom Sexton (Whitesburg City Councilman) / Brandon Coan (Lawyer, Local Interest Consulting)
Abby Maggard (Farmer) / Noble Holden and Amara McCarthy (Holden Farms)
Jenny Williams (What’s Cookin Now, Pathfinders) / Reed Johnson (Wiltshire Pantry)
Hilary Neff (Grow Appalachia) / Lee Grace (Urban Growers Co-Op)
Juanita / The Giant Rooster Side Show