Appalshop is working with local and national partners to build a new model of economic development based in grassroots arts and culture.
In 1969, Appalshop was born when a group of young people in Whitesburg, Kentucky got funding from the American Film Institute and the Office of Economic Opportunity’s War on Poverty to train local people in media making skills. Economic development was the goal from the start. With their new skills, they created new jobs and new markets. With the media they made, they told a new story about the place they called home: its poverty and illness, and its deep cultural bonds and riches. Appalshop’s grassroots, place-based media making has been linking cultural and economic development ever since.
In 2014, Appalshop began its next chapter. Faced with the end of central Appalachia’s coal-based economy, a new generation of Appalshop leaders partnered with economists from Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) and researchers from Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA) to launch a national initiative for community revitalization and economic development based in creative placemaking and placekeeping.
This initiative has drawn practitioners and researchers from across the country to the mountains of eastern Kentucky in pursuit of answers to two central questions: 1) How can arts and culture promote individual voice and collective agency, unbounding a community’s imagination and ambition in order to create the conditions for equitable economic and civic development? 2) In what ways can a community organize itself to build an economy that’s broad-based, equitable, and sustainable?
At the center of this project is the Letcher County Culture Hub: a growing collaboration among community centers, artist and artisan organizations, business associations, volunteer fire departments, elected officials, government and educational organizations, and local for- and nonprofit corporations, convened and facilitated by community organizers at Appalshop.
The Culture Hub is founded on the principle that every community has latent assets they can turn into new community wealth—but only if they can unbound their imaginations and tell new stories about themselves. Working together through the Culture Hub, partners have restarted cultural events that are once again drawing visitors from around the country; the creation of new markets for artists, musicians, and other cultural producers; the strengthening of anchor institutions that reach the most disenfranchised citizens of the county; and the founding of new businesses in sectors from food production to technology.