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Creating and Maintaining a Robust Arts Scene in Rural Wisconsin: An Interview with Donna Neuwirth of the Wormfarm Institute

The Wormfarm Institute sits on an idyllic farm in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, a town of about 9,000 people in Wisconsin’s stunning Driftless region. The area has some of the biggest and most photogenic hills in Wisconsin, a deep-rooted farming tradition, and, thanks to the Wormfarm Institute, an ever-growing arts culture.

The Wormfarm was founded in 2000 by Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas, who moved to Wisconsin from Chicago to live on a small farm. They threw themselves into the process of growing food and invited friends, mostly artists, to the farm to learn along with them. From these interactions they grew a residency program and eventually a huge, yearly festival called Fermentation Fest, which blurs the boundaries of art, culture, farming, and sustainable food practices. The fest dominates the Sauk County area every fall.

In 2011, the Farm/Art DTour was incorporated into Fermentation Fest. The DTour is a 50-mile drive through farmland dotted with temporary, site-responsive art installations. DTour artists are selected through a national call for proposals. In 2016, the DTour drew over 20,000 people. In order to manage this growth and maintain quality, the DTour shifted to a biennial in 2016 and will return this year.

I had a conversation with Donna about this year’s planned DTour, the challenges of maintaining the residency program and the DTour, and some of the broader challenges facing Wisconsin and the Midwest art scene in general.

Rachele Krivichi: How does it feel to be planning the Farm/Art DTour after a year-long break?

Donna Neuwirth: I feel two ways at the same time. Excited, because the quality of this year’s artist proposals was extraordinary, and anxious about managing this growing, multifaceted event. On the one hand, this event has been highly successful beyond our wildest dreams. On the other, because we are a small, rural arts organization, we struggle to find and retain year-round talent. We have to sort of restart every year. Even though we’ve technically had a year off, we’re feeling our way through the biennial transition. But fermentation is all about transformation, so, I guess we’re on target because that’s exactly what’s happening.

RK: What are the advantages and disadvantages of switching the DTour to a biennial event?

DN: It’s actually been a long time coming. “Biennial” is a horticultural term which describes a plant that puts down roots the first year and fruits the second. So, it feels much more appropriate for the event and for the humans who plan it. That being said, it is a challenge to maintain momentum and manage expectations around what had been an annual event.

RK: What sets the DTour apart this year from previous years?

DN: We’re trying to gently separate the DTour from Fermentation Fest.  We have described the fest as “live culture in all its forms” – dance to yogurt, poetry to sauerkraut, art to beer. This year will be a convergence, but next year maybe not. If Fermentation Fest remains annual, the DTour needs to have a stand-alone identity.

RK: Who are some artists we can look forward to this year?

DN: We have six commissioned DTour artists this year. They are David Sanchez Burr (Lake Forest, IL – originally Madrid, Spain), Franck Feurte (Bordeaux, France), Sarah FitzSimons (Madison, WI), Martha Glowacki (Sauk City, WI), Peter Krsko (Washington, D.C.) and Madeline Straka (Milwaukee, WI).

Wormfarm’s work takes place along a rural/urban continuum and is about the flow of ideas that move back and forth. The artists who apply for the DTour have some connection to these ideas and value an opportunity to work within an agricultural setting. This year, visitors can expect to encounter a true-to-scale, three-dimensional drawing of farm buildings using aluminum tent poles, a large-scale kinetic artwork integrating the feathers of local birds, and interactive stereo view installations of nineteenth and twentieth century Sauk County photographs, among other ambitious projects.

We have also designated a mystery spot to be filled because something always comes along that we didn’t plan for. That’s the beauty of the temporary: it keeps us and others open to opportunity. Mutation and even invasive (art) species are welcome here. Performers, poets and creative participation by farmers and landowners also round out the experience.

Monday is Wash Day installation for DTour by Brenda Baker, 2016 (Photo courtesy of Wormfarm Institute)

RK: Did you and Jay start your careers as artists? Do you consider the Wormfarm to be an artist-run organization?

DN: Yes and yes. We moved here from Chicago as artists and bought a farm with no clear plan. We were attracted by the vast space and natural beauty. We taught ourselves how to grow food and we put all our creative energy into that. In the first few years, our artist friends would come and visit. We found that urban artists, in general, were inspired by the land and farming as much as we were. The process of being able to feed ourselves and others physically and creatively is what all of our work has been based around. This is reinforced each year by a new crop of resident artists.

RK: How does the residency interact with Fermentation Fest – or does it?

DN: The residency is our foundational program that we started in 2000. It takes place annually during the growing season which is from May to October. The DTour began in 2011, and it very much grew out of the fertile soil of the residency. It reaches a broad public and involves partners from various sectors. Its central principle is integrating the rituals of artists, dancers, and poets, that have been used to encourage fertility in seasonal planting. We are essentially doing the same thing with a contemporary approach.  

RK: What are the challenges of maintaining a high-caliber artist residency and cultural festival in a rural setting?

DN: Well, the residency is private and is about the micro-community that forms on the rather isolated farm during the residency. We are able to manage the residency with just Jay and me and a seasonal residency manager.

The DTour, on the other hand, is a huge project requiring dedicated staff and many volunteers. It covers 50 miles, 40 different stops on the map, 20-30 landowners, artists, performers, poets, signage, food, marketing, website and more. Oh, and let’s not forget the porta-potties!

Another part of our challenge is the “brain drain” that rural places are currently experiencing. We work to create opportunities in a rural setting, but it’s those very opportunities that draw the talent we need in order to do just that. This is where the rural/urban flow, which is an awareness of what rural places add to the arts conversation, comes in. Rural/urban partnerships will be our focus for the foreseeable future. We are exactly halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, which gives us a huge advantage for creating these partnerships.

RK: Yeah, I was just in Nebraska and I was noticing how huge the farms are there and how disconnected they seem from the cities. I was thinking that Nebraska could use a little dose of Wormfarm.

DN: Thanks to the glacier that missed us, huge farming operations are just not practical in this hilly area, so we can hold onto (and grow, I hope) our unique artisanal farms in a way that other parts of the country can’t.  

RK: So, what would you say sets the Wormfarm Institute apart from nonprofit arts organizations?

DN: We’re a founder-led organization so our programs clearly reflect Jay and I’s enthusiasms. That kind of personal drive is critical to an organization’s early development. Now we’re verging on maturity and transformation (that word again) is on the horizon. We have managed to enlist great people to help realize our vision. But at this point, it needs to be a larger, shared vision. Switching the DTour to a biennial is one of the ways we started to rethink both the event and our priorities as an organization.

RK: I think that’s great. It helps to eliminates that “founder’s syndrome” that a lot of other nonprofits have.

DN: I don’t know that the syndrome is entirely absent; we are, after all, two highly opinionated creative types certain of the soundness of our vision.  

RK: Does Wisconsin support the Wormfarm at all (financially)?

DN: Oh, Wisconsin…we love it, of course, but it has its share of challenges, including being 48th in terms of funding for the arts. We are way, way down there. And then, of course, there’s our Governor…

Given these realities, however, the Wisconsin Arts Board (with its slashed budget) has a tiny but powerful staff that is thoughtful, creative, strategic, and able to do a lot with very little. Sauk County is fortunate because it is the only rural county in the state that has a small arts grants program. We are in the deep, deep shadow of Minnesota, who is number one in terms of arts funding. But I like to think we are scrappier with a hungry edge that can be its own energy source. After all, the best wine grapes grow in the poorest soil. These are the mantras we tell ourselves; truth be damned!

That said, I’d swap in a minute.

How the United States funds the arts (Source: https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/how-the-us-funds-the-arts.pdf)

RK: Interesting. This makes me think of Europe. They have so much funding for the arts there but it seems like there isn’t as much passion in the art that’s being made there, and there aren’t as many arts organizations. Maybe that’s because it’s more of a rebellion here.

DK: I can’t really speak to that, but a bright spot in terms of getting art out of its silo is the growing field of creative placemaking of which the DTour is a good example. It is asset-based community development with arts at its core. We partner across sectors to unite around these shared assets that make our place unique. We have farmers, cheese makers, brewers, bakers, artists, composers, and poets all working together to make Fermentation Fest what it is. I believe eventually these ideas will seep into other agencies’ funding priorities. The USDA, for example, could see the Farm/Art DTour as an innovative rural development strategy. But we’re not there yet.

RK: What would Wormfarm look like in another state, for example, Minnesota, where there is more funding for the arts?

DN: I honestly believe that by now with a proven, successful project that provides free cultural programming for thousands of people that we would have full-time, year-round staff. My hope is that in this time of field-building and getting out of our silos they will find ways to be better neighbors to us. I hope Wisconsin can be an important outpost within our “Cultureshed,” a word Jay coined in the early 1990s defined as:

  1. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history.
  2.  An area nourished by what is cultivated locally.  
  3. The efforts of writers, performers, artists, scholars, farmers and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.

RK: How do you think the Wormfarm Institute has impacted the Reedsburg area?

DN: Fermentation Fest has had a substantial, steady impact not only Reedsburg but the surrounding Sauk County area. It has catalyzed both cultural and economic growth. Some examples are a temporary work on the DTour becoming a permanent, public art piece, a new arts organization forming, new Public Art Policy, a Placemaking Initiative including the creation of a new position, and a small pilot grant program being launched.

It has also catalyzed new businesses along the DTour route such as a farm B&B, a bakery, and a winery. It’s launched new food businesses in the areas of pickles, coffee, and catering. It’s helped some farmers expand their markets into grass-fed beef and direct market cheese. In addition, former resident artists as well as DTour artists have moved to town and bought property, and a couple more are thinking about it.

A cyclist bikes the DTour route in Sauk County (Photo courtesy of Wormfarm Institute)

RK: They need to go to Nebraska first. Then moving to Wisconsin will seem like a no-brainer. Just kidding! Sort of.

So, what do you personally think is the importance of bringing arts and culture to rural areas?

DN: The word “culture” comes from the Latin “to till the soil,” so we don’t so much bring the culture here as find new ways to unearth and seed it.

Why is it important to me? It’s basically selfish. After the great experiment of learning to farm, what would keep us here? What would deepen our commitment to this place?  The annual influx of artists each season reinvigorates our commitment to our work and gives a regular dose of what we might have missed, which is regular exposure to fresh ideas and creative stimulation. We found a way to exchange what we had (our farm) for what we needed (culture). That, in turn, allowed us to invest more in this community by buying and renovating a Main Street building.

Our residency is somewhat unique in that it is an immersion in the life of a working farm. We always knew that living on a farm isn’t for everybody, but we knew it would work for certain artists. A couple of early residents described the morning garden work as “calisthenics” because working with their bodies in the morning prepared them to work in their studios in the afternoon.

RK: What is Wormfarm’s plan for the future?

DN: Good question!. We’re at a natural transition time. We’ve been running the DTour for seven years, and we’ve noticed that things often come in a seven-year cycle. All of this fertile soil that has come from the residency and Fermentation Fest has seeded other projects. For example, we are developing a collaboration with Double Edge Theater, which is based on a farm in rural Massachusetts.

We are also working on amping up our urban/rural flow initiative, which is part of a much larger national project called “Performing our Futures” with Imagining America. The idea started with a bus of artists and farmers who went back and forth from Reedsburg to Milwaukee for two years in a row. We want to invigorate and increase that flow of people, art, and ideas, and create projects that encourage participation in a region with vital rural and urban parts. It all started with the Milwaukee to Sauk County trip.

Luckily, there has been increased attention on the rural Midwest and “flyover” country since the 2016 election. Transformation is definitely coming. Here’s hoping it’s a healthy one.


Cover image: Wealth, A community collaboration by Vierbicher Associates, Fride Associates, four local farmers: Ralph Thompson, Larry and Bridget Mundth, Steve Shulenberg, and Wormfarm resident artists, 2014 (Photo courtesy of Wormfarm Institute)

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