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Reflections on the Future of Community Cultural Development



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My recent dissertation research examined the history and present-day activities of Appalshop, a community cultural development organization located in Eastern Kentucky in central Appalachia. Community cultural development (CCD) actors value the potential of art and cultural activities to create space for individual and collective imagining and reimagining of communities. However, my research into Appalshop’s evolution found me struggling with what that institution’s recent changes heralded for it and for the larger community cultural development field in which it plays a leadership role.

I conducted archival research and undertook semi-structured interviews with 18 current and former Appalshop staff members to examine the organization’s 50-year history. Founded in 1969, Appalshop and its staff have approached CCD in many ways, including through media production (e.g., film, music and radio), photography, youth education, theater and, more recently, through more traditional community economic development activities. I explored Appalshop’s history and sought to identify and assess the mechanisms the organization has employed as it has reacted to the changing national and regional social, political and economic environment that it has confronted. My aim was to learn how those external forces have influenced the institution’s choices, and how its staff members have employed such discretion as they possessed to address those pressures in order to further their mission and pursue preferred activities. I used New Institutionalist theory, an analytic framework that emphasizes the need to explore the different fields of influence on any organization as well as the individual actors within that entity who, through their drive to create and perpetuate shared meaning, may adopt or contest the narratives pressed by external actors.

I identified four different stages or phases in Appalshop’s evolution, characterized by changing national policy and culture as well as the choices of different generations of the organization’s staff.

  1. Institutional Formation (1969-1982): This period was roughly characterized by the beginning of the Appalachian Film Workshop and its transition into a functioning nonprofit housed in a new building, the same physical structure the institution occupies today. The organization’s mission, operative logics and primary activities were established during this period. The national culture of the time encouraged Appalshop’s development. For example, the Civil Rights and other social movements of those years served as key influences on individual actor’s choices to join the nascent nonprofit and on the character of the work they subsequently produced as staff there. The national arts field of the 1960s and 1970s reflected democratic ideologies of the time that were themselves nested within the modern and postmodern art movements. These trends and the birth and growth of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both established in 1965, the nation’s War on Poverty and the creation and trajectories of other federal government agencies, created an auspicious environment within the U.S. in which CCD organizations could be established and thrive.
  2. Institutional Growth (1983-2000): Appalshop experienced its most significant growth during this phase of its history. Its staff doubled in size and its budget increased by approximately 400%. Many of its activities expanded from a local or regional reach to national or international scale. Nevertheless, beginning in the 1980s and alongside the arts organization’s growth, a new political mindset, neoliberalism, became ascendant within the federal and state governments and in the culture more generally. Neoliberalism is defined by a political belief in the preeminence of free-market capitalism, a utopian idea that democratic governance is no longer required thanks to the market and its invisible hand working as an ecosystem to keep everything in balance. Many scholars, including David Harvey (2005), have argued that this ideology is actually a pretense for supporting capital and power accumulation among capitalist elites. This perspective first became prominent within the Republican Party and was pressed especially by Ronald Reagan, but eventually was adopted by many Democrats, too, including President Bill Clinton, by 1992. The repercussions of this new public philosophy were manifold, but may be captured broadly by suggesting that millions came to believe that everything may best be understood and valued in economic and instrumental terms.
  3. Institutional Contraction (2001-2014): Due to the advent of neoliberalism and the changing national and regional politics and shifting economy it wrought, Appalshop and many of its peer organizations faced significant budget reductions during the 2000s. Funding patterns among public and private sources changed markedly, and the organization was forced to reduce its staff and scope of activities and to rethink its institutional structure. Neoliberalism yielded cuts in public funding for the arts in favor of nearly complete private sector provision of arts and culture, greater emphasis on purported “nonpolitical” art largely rooted in the western European tradition, the reframing of the arts to address specific economic concerns as tools for such development and a stress placed on “programmatic” impacts, preferably measured quantitatively.
  4. Institutional Change (2015-present): The growth of community-based placemaking efforts in philanthropic, state and federal circles offered a new funding opportunity and a different way of framing Appalshop’s CCD work during this period. Moreover, the retirement of Appalshop’s first generation of staff and the influx of a new cadre of employees with different professional skillsets has provided fresh possibilities and ways of thinking about the organization’s storytelling and social change mission. In order to address the growth of neoliberalism, changing technology and the continued sharp decline of the coal economy in Appalachia, Appalshop staff have adapted the organization’s modus operandi to one that is more locally and service-based. For instance, they have created a youth drop-in center and are developing a maker space with 3D printing equipment to serve the youth of its home community and nearby localities.

During these different periods of change, Appalshop staff members have played key roles in adapting and sustaining their organization to its changing environment. In particular, they have evidenced the following capacities:

  • A passion and perspective to see beyond what is directly in front of them to the underlying relationships creating that reality as well as the possibilities for changing it;
  • An ability to build and grow partnerships within and outside the organization while sharing their own vision and acknowledging other’s values and potential despite social, cultural or political differences;
  • A capacity to tell meaningful, life-related stories through their work that speak to the experiences of a variety of audiences and individuals; and
  • A willingness and determination to learn and adapt amidst changing external social, political and economic circumstances.

While these capacities are formidable, it must nevertheless be said that Appalshop’s staff and leaders now face a socio-political environment of strident political, and for some, racial and ethnic, nationalism and sectarianism, all of which have created and deepened divisions among Americans across the nation. Perversely, this social condition is the exact opposite of the organization’s community cultural development goals.

In sum, national and regional forces external to Appalshop have strongly influenced how the organization operates today. This is particularly evident in the ways that neoliberal ideas have shifted public and private conceptions of the arts and the funding streams that have resulted from that sea change. While individual staff members at Appalshop have excelled at adapting to these shifts, in many respects those trends and forces have boxed them in, confining them and their institution to a deeply circumscribed conception of their goals as handmaiden to economic claims. They have had to align more with economic development practices, demonstrate direct relationships with (disproportionately) economic issues they will affect through their work and offer quantitative measures to illustrate programmatic effectiveness.

This utilitarianism has limited the horizon in which community cultural development work may proceed. Although there are many examples of how such efforts have shaped different groups and communities (e.g., Cohen-Cruz 2005; Graves 2005; Cleveland 2008; Stephenson and Tate 2015; Woodson and Underiner 2018), their effects are typically long-term, related to individual and social democratic agency and difficult to quantify. How does one measure an individual’s, much less a community’s ability to imagine a future beyond the current reality or the emotional catharsis that seeing one’s culture explored on stage or on screen creates for individuals living amidst growing or enduring inequality and poverty and bewildering social change? When harnessed simply to efforts to secure economic development or commodified and packaged in the name of such initiatives, art may be robbed of its otherwise innate capacity to pose larger questions about human identity, meaning, history and the complex nature of community and to create bridges to support possibilities for community building. While those now at Appalshop are certain that their future will consist of more film, theater, radio and other artistic production, the practical question confronting the institution today is how this will occur in a social and political environment that now financially and substantively limits such activities, at least as the arts organization has long sought to define them.    


Cleveland, W. (2008). Art and upheaval: Artists on the world’s frontlines. Oakland, CA: New Village Press.

Cohen-Cruz, J. (2005). Local acts: Community-based performance in the United States. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Fligstein, N. and D. McAdam (2012). A theory of fields. New York: Oxford University Press.

Graves, J.B. (2005). Cultural democracy: The arts, community and the public purpose. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Powell, W. and P. Dimaggio (1991). The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Stephenson, M and A.S. Tate (2015). Arts and community change: exploring cultural development policies, practices, and dilemmas. New York, NY: Routledge.

Woodson, S.E. and Underiner, T. (2018). Theater, performance and change. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sarah Lyon-Hill

Sarah Lyon-Hill is a doctoral candidate in the School of Public and International Affairs Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. Her research explores the changing state of the community cultural development field over time vis-a-vis broader political, social and economic trends. She is interested broadly in the role of the arts in community development and the tension/reflexivity found between individual agency and hegemony. As a senior economic development specialist at the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, Sarah develops and conducts community and economic development projects with partners across Virginia. Her applied research has included impact analyses, strategic planning processes and studies related to industry and workforce change. 

Publication Date

November 21, 2019