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The Art of Rebuilding: A Japanese Earthquake Update

July 07, 2011

(Laura Cronin is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. Her last post was a Q&A with Don Crocker, executive director of the Support Center for Nonprofit Management.)

Dream_Gong The economic importance of the arts has been well documented, and funders with an interest in community development have long recognized that artists and nonprofit arts organizations are essential to community revitalization.

More recently, in the wake of several large-scale natural and man-made disasters, funders have focused on support for arts and culture as a part of the larger effort to help people rebuild their lives. Award-winning television producer David Simon even made the idea that culture can help heal a devastated city the premise for his critically acclaimed HBO series Treme.

In the United States, the Coalition for Artists' Preparedness and Emergency Response, a task force of more than twenty arts organizations, arts funders and individual artists, has been working to build a nationwide safety net for artists and the arts organizations that serve them before, during, and after disasters.

In the months ahead, this approach will cross the Pacific when the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) -- whose mission is to support international dialogue through cultural exchange -- launches Arts in Action, a grant program to support artists working in communities recovering from natural disasters.

According to ACC associate director Miho Walsh, the program grew out of something called the Java project, a series of grants the council made in response to an earthquake that struck the Indonesian island of Java in 2006. ACC partnered with the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and the Asia Society to raise funds for artists in the affected region, and eventually awarded a number of small grants targeted directly to their specific, immediate needs. For example, when an in-country grant team suggested to renowned Indonesian puppeteer Ki Timbul that he apply for funds to replace the partially destroyed roof of his home, Timbul instead requested support for a new gong. The gong, of course, is the heart and soul of the gamelan, the musical ensemble that accompanies traditional Indonesian puppet performances, and with his replacement gong in hand, Timbul was able to travel to affected areas, perform, and continue to earn his living as an artist, while bringing a measure of succor and inspiration to a region eager to celebrate its cultural heritage.

Martinus Miroto, an Indonesian dancer, received funds to bring his students from the Indonesian National Conservatory into quake-affected villages to introduce young people to the performing arts through simple exercises and games. In the process, Miroto was able to lift the spirits of children who were trying to cope with the devastation around them and give them the tools to express themselves at a difficult time in their lives. Another small grant provided funds to enable a group of musicians and performing artists to rent a van and travel to the hardest-hit areas, where they staged a series of concerts and theater performances.

Indeed, through the project, the funding partners discovered that small, targeted grants could be transformative in post-disaster situations. While difficult to quantify in monetary terms, the impact in terms of what they meant to individual artists, their audiences, and local communities was considerable.

As a result, Arts in Action decided to formalize the approach by creating a permanent program available to artists in need in both Asia and the U.S. With its expertise in making grants to individuals, and its knowledge of the creative arts scenes both here and in Asia, the new initiative is a natural extension of the main ACC grant program.

With support from Japanese firm Mikimoto, Arts in Action is set to award its first round of grants in Japan later this year. In the program's initial phase, Japanese artists whose canvases, costumes, instruments, masks, brushes, studios, kilns, and so forth were lost or damaged as a result of the earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, an area rich in local crafts, festivals and arts, will be able to apply for funds to replace those materials as well as to share their artistic output with affected communities.

Communities also will be able to apply for grants that they can use to support cultural heritage efforts. The fund also plans to make grants available to individuals for travel both to and from the Tokohu region, as well as to arts organizations engaged in rebuilding projects of special significance.

"The arts are essential in the day-to-day life of the Japanese people," said ACC board chair Richard S. Lanier. "We are confident that Arts in Action • Japan will make a significant contribution to rebuilding, healing, and empowering communities in the affected areas."

Recovery efforts in the region are under way, but there is a lot of work still to be done and private funding is needed. To learn more about the initiative, visit the Asian Cultural Council Web site.

-- Laura Cronin

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Japan got through this type of tragedy before in the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, they can do it again. More power to your rebuilding efforts.

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