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Rural Blog: Appalshop arts-and-culture co-op spotlighted in PBS NewsHour series on U.S. artists

PBS NewsHour began its new “American Creators” series, “taking us to all corners of the country to see artists at work,” February 9 with a long profile of Appalshop, the arts-and-culture cooperative based in Whitesburg, Ky., near the Virginia border, in the depressed Central Appalachian coalfield.

Ada Smith of Appalshop (Photo from PBS)

Jeffrey Brown’s eight-and-a-half minute report is hard to reduce to a blog post, but the essential quotes probably came from Ada Smith, who raises money and acts as a spokeswoman: “There’s been a long history of only seeing rural communities and economies as places to take from, and not places to invest in.” Brown asks, “And Appalshop says otherwise, huh?” Smith laughs and replies, “Yes. We feel like there’s a lot of wealth and talent and ideas that need to be given a chance.”

That’s a sharp summation of Appalshop, now in its 50th year. Started with a War on Poverty grant as the Appalachian Film Workshop, it soon expanded into other arts and cultural pursuits started a radio station, a Roadside Theater and film-making workshops for young people, and recently expanded into economic development.

Herb E. Smith, Ada’s father and an Appalshop filmmaker (Photo from PBS)

Smith’s father, Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith, recalls, his voice breaking, how fewer than 50 of Whitesburg High School’s 1970 graduating class remained in Letcher County by that fall “with no hopes of ever returning. Generations of people, thousands and millions of people leave mining areas and the people who remain miss them. Miss them bad.” Appalshop “was a way to be a part of the solution, and to kind of understand the place that we were a part of.”

Appalshop has helped build a regional support network to encourage economic development, “with more than a dozen businesses and organizations in the area,” Brown reports. When Gwen Johnson’s Hemphill Community Center was in danger of closing because of a decline in coal taxes, “with encouragement and support from Appalshop, including $5,000 in seed money, Johnson was able to start a catering company to help pay the bills,” and it hires inmates from the local drug court. Johnson said of Appalshop, “They’re friends who kind of stepped up to the plate and began to think outside the box, and sometimes they think bigger than some of us have ever been allowed to think.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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