Often when cultural organizations think about expanding access to the arts, they often focus on finding ways to help new audiences visit their facility or cultural space.
Community Creative Center, a hands-on studio and visual arts organization, has turned that approach on its head. The Fayetteville-based arts nonprofit this month is launching the Wheel Mobile, a mobile pottery studio that will travel across Northwest Arkansas and expand opportunity for youth and adults to discover their inner potter.
I spoke with the organization’s executive director Barb Putman about how they came up with the idea for the Wheel Mobile and why it’s an important addition to the region’s cultural landscape.
Joe: Tell me a little bit about the Wheel Mobile. What is it?
Barb: It is a 33-foot Winnebago that has been custom-designed as a traveling, fully-stocked art studio. You walk inside and you’ll see nine pottery wheels mounted on the floor. People can just walk in, get their hands on some clay and start making pottery. We have storage for used clay, new clay, supplies, tools– anything that can help us offer people a great arts education experience. If we want to do painting or drawing, we can do that as well. And with it’s bright, colorful design, there’s no way to miss it when it rolls up to a school or a town square.
Joe: Where did the idea come from for the Wheel Mobile?
Barb: We wanted to find a new way to get arts into the community. Our mission is to make arts empowering and accessible to everybody – and last year we served about 4,000 people – adults and children and students of all ages. But Northwest Arkansas is such a vibrant, growing region. We started to reach capacity at our existing studio. We have 15 pottery wheels and that’s as big as we can get. We realized expanding our existing location wasn’t necessarily going to help us reach more people. It can be difficult for people to come to us, especially if you live 30 miles away. The Wheel Mobile was the next logical thing.
Joe: There has been some recent research that suggests that distance plays a huge role in whether people participate in the arts. Is the idea to make it easier for people who might want to try pottery, but don’t have the time or resources to visit a location that’s not near them?
Barb: I think it’s an innovative take on how to increase ‘access.’ And it’s a relevant one in Northwest Arkansas because the region has so many distinct communities – from the larger centers like Bentonville, Springdale, Fayetteville and Rogers – to the smaller, more rural communities. There are lots of underserved schools with low-income or high-needs students and populations. One of the things we learned when we were developing our arts education programming with schools is that there are so many barriers to get the kids to come to us. It costs money for the buses. It costs money for substitute teachers to take kids on a field trip. Basically, the Wheel Mobile will eliminate a lot of those barriers.
Joe: Why is that important?
Barb: I think it just opens up a new world, for kids in particular. I see kids who are not engaged in school at all – and they sit down in front of a lump of clay and their whole demeanor changes. They become talkative, different people because of the arts and the opportunities that art brings.
Joe: What kind of programming are you going offer with the Wheel Mobile?
Barb: We are going to be doing a lot of work with schools in the region. We are going directly to the kids. The Walton Family Foundation gave us a matching grant – and we’ve been raising money to meet that match – that will allow us to provide arts education at low-income schools and nonprofits that serve high-needs populations. We can offer that at no charge because we have sponsorships from community members who have literally jumped on board the Wheel Mobile. We’ll also offer specialty classes and workshops. We do ‘date nights’ and pottery parties around the region for anyone who wants to try their hand.
Joe: How far will the Wheel Mobile roam?
Barb: It’s going to be about a 70-mile radius, mainly in Benton and Washington counties. We’ll try to get to as many places as we can. We’ll go park somewhere in the community on a given night each week and do classes. Just like we would at our studio. But it’ll be closer to peoples’ homes.
Joe: One last thing, are you driving?
Barb: It’s funny how things have just fallen into place with the Wheel Mobile. One of our part-time teaching artists used to drive 18 wheelers. And she used to drive a school bus. This woman has fallen out of the heavens. She teaches pottery classes and is now our official Winnebago engineer. She can drive. She can change the oil. She has given the Wheel Mobile a nickname – we’re calling it ‘Arty.’