Both in Australia and overseas, regional development is increasingly characterised by a ‘self-help’ approach, and from the perspective of a creative writer and an anthropologist, I am continually struck by how often these ‘self-help’ development approaches lead to the harnessing of local culture and identity – as well as creativity and inspiration – for practical regional development ends. Local communities are exhorted to be ‘innovative,’ ‘entrepreneurial,’ and ‘creative’ in coming up with solutions to their economic, social, and environmental problems. This approach is applied as enthusiastically to volunteer community committees as it is to regional firms, and to impoverished rural women in poor countries as it is to wealthy organisations in strong economies. As a result, communities in disadvantaged regions may find themselves working together in a desperate bid to attract outside resources any way they can. They may look to tourism, perhaps, or try to market local products such as handicrafts or foodstuffs. To draw needed resources into their region, they must either find what they have that is unique – or create it.

In this paper, I use the term region broadly to refer to any geographical area with features of common identity, but with a particular focus on economically disadvantaged regions, those that most urgently seek regional development to improve the livelihoods and lifestyles of their residents. Regional communities harness the raw materials of art – if not art itself, in the form of painted streetscapes and music festivals, traditional weavings and local stories – as a way to draw market resources into their communities and regions. When considering the tension between art and industry, I therefore see that the question goes much deeper than the oft-explored relationship between individual (often professional) artists and the market. What is increasingly apparent is that whole communities of people, their identity, their culture, and their creative processes are becoming the focus of market-oriented regional development efforts. They are being, in a word, harnessed – and are valued based upon how effectively they work in that harness.

There are important implications here. Regional developers will observe market resources flowing into a poor region, and be content. Anthropologists will ask if communities themselves are driving the process and if the shifts of identity and cultural values that are taking place are internally coherent for those communities – recognising that cultures are always changing. If it looks as though communities themselves are making the choices, then the anthropologists will be content – although those that look with a wider lens will see globalised economies and ask how much choice people in these communities actually have. The poet, who is never content, cries out:

And so our kinfolks let themselves/be sweet-talked into believing/that things would be the same./ … /…And now the yolk owners/are claiming their gold, and squashing/the shell and letting it fall howsumever/it falls. Let folks talk about our/ backward ways. I like it. If forward’s/what’s been coming in right here lately,/ I’d go into backup if I could …. (Chaffin, 1994)

The following sections consider some examples of harnessing culture, identity and creative expression to pursue practical regional development goals. Inevitably, the question emerges: What kind of regional development is being pursued? Whose definition of forward is in force, and what is the role of the arts in creating or challenging different views of progress for regional communities?


Craft and Culture in Latin America

In many poor countries, artistic handicrafts – often very expressive, with strong cultural meanings – are regularly harnessed as an economic development strategy to bring outside resources to poor regions. For instance, June Nash’s collection Crafts in the World Market gives many examples of the crafts of indigenous peoples of Central America, with ‘techniques and art traditions over a thousand years old’ (1993: 2) being marketed as income-generating strategies. While retaining aspects of their traditions of artistic expression, Mesoamerican artisans tune these to market demands – innovating, in the language of regional development, in order to channel economic resources from elsewhere into their economically disadvantaged regions – and harnessing their cultural identity and artistic expressiveness to do so. This can, however, be a tight harness. Marketing may mean losing the context and meanings of traditional art and craft, as designs become valued for what they can earn rather than what they say. Traditional Mesoamerican designs are now placed on t-shirts and mugs, and characteristic weaving and embroidery styles are adapted to make easily marketable goods such as tote bags and backpacks. Market pressures push artisans from expressive creation towards mass-production.

The use of traditional craft as an economic development tool is quite common in Latin America as well as in other developing-country contexts (see, for instance, Lorna Kaino (1995) on the Asian-Pacific region). For people living in poor regions – rural villages or marginal urban settlements with few other employment options – craft production offers an accessible income-generating opportunity. It generally uses existing skills (crafts are traditionally made for a range of reasons from personal and ritual consumption to market sale) as well as local materials and technology. Some crafts have a unique ethnic or cultural content (such as those of indigenous peoples) that can enhance their market appeal. Successful examples of using traditional ethnic craft to generate important economic resources for households and regions include the textile enterprises of the Otavalo Indians of Ecuador and of Zapotec communities in Oaxaca, Mexico (Stephen, 1991; Cohen, 1998; Korovkin, 1998).

Tapping into cultural traditions of craft production to support regional economic development has various implications. On the positive side, it can be an option for people to maintain existing communities and traditional ways of life while securing better livelihoods through links with external markets However, as Scrase (2003) points out, craft production can be ‘precarious’ in rapidly changing global markets, and these markets can pressure craft-making toward mass production and even exploitative labour arrangements. Yet, in some cases, it may be possible to generate income through craft forms (such as weaving, painting, ceramics, metalwork, woodwork, etc.) while continuing to use these as a form of artistic expression, reflecting aspects of individual and group identity.

Traditional crafts can serve as a form of cross-cultural communication between marginalised groups and the rest of the world, in which the artisan or artist communicates his or her way of life and way-of-seeing to outsiders. This can be observed, for instance, in the work of those Indigenous Australian artists who use traditional forms (notably dot painting) to communicate both their artistic vision and its cultural context. Similarly, Jalq’a and Tarabuco axsu textiles from Bolivia, despite their origin as an article of clothing and their frequent appearance in tourist craft shops, are both culturally and individually expressive. The development of a museum-shop in a Bolivian city to display and sell these indigenous textiles has led to a greater public awareness of the area’s indigenous heritage and traditions and the expressiveness of this traditional art form, while also helping to improve weavers’ livelihoods (Eversole, 1995; Healy, 2000).

This example from Bolivia, in which an indigenous ‘craft’ practice is gaining recognition as art, can be contrasted to the situation in India as described by Jain (1995). Here, there is a clear divide between elite artists and tribal and village artisans. Jain describes how the work of artisans is driven by commercial concerns in the quest for economic development and, as a result, their work has become predominantly mass-produced. Artisans are pressured to respond to the demands of export and urban markets, with their choice of motif and design being determined by market pressures. In the end ‘there is little concern left for considering the expressions of the tribal and village artists as “art” … What we now call “handicraft” was once upon a time “culture”’ (Jain, 1995: 29-30). Commodification in contemporary global markets has led to a loss of cultural significance and of artistic expressiveness.

Ultimately at issue is the cultural and creative or expressive content of a piece of art or craft, and how that is acknowledged. If artisans can enter wider markets without losing the ability to create their own designs and communicate meanings through them, they are in a potentially strong position. The work retains its uniqueness and thus its ability (at least in principle) to demand a good price; meanwhile, its creators are able to express key aspects of their personal and cultural identities in ways that demand respect. If, on the other hand, the commercialisation of craft leads to its style and content being driven by outside tastes, the product will become a mere echo of outsiders’ expectations (including their ideas of what is ‘authentic’ and ‘exotic’ indigenous culture). The craft product may still generate income, but it will lose its ability to communicate. It will no longer be able to reflect or express identities and meanings for the individual or for the group.


Writing Culture in West Virginia

The role of the artist in reflecting and/or recreating identities and meanings can be central to the regional development process. More than simply drawing resources in from outside a disadvantaged region, artists are in a position to affirm and even create new resources from within these regions themselves. This section offers an example from my home region: a rural mountainous area of America. A colleague, familiar with West Virginia from twenty years ago, recently referred to it as a ‘place of incredible beauty and terrible poverty.’ Writers, I was told as a child, did not come from West Virginia, but from places like New York that had culture. As a young writer, that was a frustrating message to hear. But things have been changing. Two years before my first book was published by a New York publisher, I discovered that an internationally recognised author lived three streets away from me. She was one of many West Virginian writers, writing about their place and its stories, and finally starting to be noticed.

In the past twenty years or so, a small group of dedicated writers and teachers of literature have worked to document the extent of West Virginian writing within the broader area of Appalachian literature. As West Virginian literary historian Phyllis Wilson Moore has expressed it, ‘Yes, we do have writers,’ and she has worked tirelessly with colleagues to document the state’s illustrious writing history – long hidden from state residents themselves. Part of this history had been disguised by history itself – the state of West Virginia was not formed until 1865, and all writers before that date were considered part of Virginia. Nevertheless, after 1865, there were still many nationally and internationally known writers with strong connections to West Virginia. That this was never acknowledged until quite recently seems to have been a function of a cultural assumption that it simply could not be. To some extent, state residents’ identity was flavoured by outsiders’ assumptions about the Appalachian region. In the words of a Tennessee poet:

Mountain people/can’t read,/ can’t write,/ don’t wear shoes,/…/ and don’t talk plain./…/Right?/Well, let me tell you:/ I’m from here,/ I’m not like that,/ and I am damned tired of being told that I am (Carson, 1994).

Perhaps more than any other group in Appalachia, the region’s writers have often drawn consciously on Appalachian language, landscape and themes to validate and communicate their unique identity and to contest outsiders’ views of Appalachia actively. Many West Virginians have written very ‘regionally’, using strong dialect and rural settings, giving a strong West Virginian flavour to their work. In many cases these writers seem to be writing their place to contest what others made of it. We are not a place of poverty and ignorance, these writers are saying, we have this identity, this culture, listen:

I am Appalachia. In my veins/Runs fierce mountain pride; the hill-fed streams/ Of passion; and stranger, you don’t know me! (Dressler, 2000)

There is a peculiar strength in much of this writing that centres itself so strongly in a place and its culture – often as oppositional to places and cultures elsewhere. As this regional literature has finally entered West Virginian classrooms in recent years, young people no longer believe that writers must be from elsewhere. Not only this, but they are seeing their region through the eyes of writers who portray it as a unique place with a unique culture. This is an important regional development process: one not targeted at drawing outside resources in, but one reflecting, acknowledging, and even re-creating the region’s own cultural assets. Affirming and even re-creating a shared identity can be an important regional development resource. By refusing to be defined and pigeonholed by others, residents of disadvantaged regions assert their own visions of regional development. They acknowledge their own internal resources, and override outsiders’ visions of who they are or what they should be.


Harnessing Art: Concluding Thoughts on Australia

The importance of the arts in regional development should not be underestimated. Art can reflect, and recreate, meanings and identities for regional communities. Artists can also communicate their region, their community, and their culture to outsiders in ways that generate interest, respect, and even understanding. Thus, artistic expression is important in both the ways that local people relate to their region and the ways in which outsiders perceive disadvantaged regions.

The distinction that I wish to draw in this paper is between recognising the importance of the arts – and all that is associated with the arts, such as creativity, local culture, and identity – for regional development and harnessing these for regional development ends. This distinction is key, and it is one that is being completely overlooked in the current practice of regional development, community development, and community arts in Australia. Current practice does well to recognise the importance of the arts and local culture. But it quickly moves from acknowledging their importance to harnessing them – often to meet outsiders’ goals rather than the goals of regional residents themselves.

In this brief paper, three examples will suffice. The first example is the current state of community development practice in Australia, with its emphasis on ‘community building’ and strengthening community identity. In such community development initiatives and programmes, local people are encouraged to organise themselves to conduct creative activities (such as painting murals or running a local festival) that both express their identity and communicate it to outsiders. This is often directly an attempt to put their town on the map and attract tourists (Derrett, 2003). Such approaches have been critiqued on a number of fronts, including how they overlook and even disguise heterogeneity and social inequity in communities; how they offer communities a simplistic assumption that such local activities can and should solve their (often serious and externally driven) economic problems; and how such approaches can be used by central governments as a way to devolve responsibility to local communities and discourage activism and advocacy promoting any real change (see, e.g.. Eversole, 2003; Herbert-Cheshire, 2000; Mowbray, 2003). It may be said that such programmes, while ostensibly encouraging creative expression, work to shift the creative energies of regional communities into safe and shallow channels.

A second Australian example is the current trend – positive at first glance – to link arts practice (particularly community arts) with ideas of ‘health’ and ‘well being.’ Though we may welcome health professionals moving beyond merely bio-physical indicators of health and adopting the language of ‘well being,’ the uses of these ideas are disturbing. Whilst the language of ‘well being’ may sound broad, it is coming out of a health paradigm and thus is still linked closely to ideas of health promotion (as defined by particular science-driven values and assumptions imposed by outside professionals on ‘target’ populations). Meanwhile, the definitions of ‘well being’ that are used are inevitably worded to offend no one, and thus tend to be one-size-fits-all, innocuous, and ideologically empty. The idea that someone else’s idea of our ‘well being’ may be imposed upon us – and that even art, with its subtlety and appeal, may be harnessed to do so – is clearly disturbing. This is particularly so, as it now seems quite accepted in governmental circles that both people’s ‘well being’ and the impact of the arts can be measured. But who is holding the measuring-stick?

A final trend, international but readily apparent in Australia, is the current focus on ‘creative’ or ‘cultural’ industries as a way of ‘leveraging cultural roots and assets but focusing on generating an export income…from outside their own regions’ by ‘linking creatively with commercial markets’ (SGS Economics and Planning, 2004). It is now not uncommon to see university programmes setting aside the label ‘arts’ for the more up-to-date and supposedly marketable term ‘creative industries.’ Similarly, among the currently fashionable ideas in regional development are the much cited ideas of Richard Florida and his so-called ‘creative class.’. These ideas are used to refer to a need for regions to be culturally diverse (i.e., to include a ‘Bohemian’ and ‘gay’ element) in order to attract creative people working in ‘creative industries’ and thus ensure the economic development of regions in the much-lauded economy of knowledge and innovation (Florida, 2002). This approach stereotypically assumes that creativity is the property of a ‘creative class’ with certain (urban, liberal) cultural characteristics. Does a rural Australian lifestyle preclude creativity? The implication seems to be that creativity that emerges in other cultural contexts is not valid. Furthermore, the valuing of what is ‘successful’ here is still pre-eminently economic. Of course, regions – particularly disadvantaged regions – have economic concerns, and the so-called ‘creative industries’ can help to attract resources. But in the words of one regional art gallery curator, ‘It seems sad to me that an economic vision is the dominant starting point for analysing the world we live in’ – including judging the value of creativity.

The trend to ‘leverage cultural (and artistic) roots and assets’ in the pursuit of regional development goals is widespread in Australia. Unlike the examples given above from indigenous art and West Virginia literature, the trend here is for artists and creators not to actively inform trajectories of regional change or to suggest visions of what constitutes progress. Rather, regional development trajectories and the definition of ‘progress’ are imposed from elsewhere (often by government departments and regional development agencies), and the arts and creativity are expected to work within this harness. This trend is disturbing. Yet artists remind us that the internal resources of a community – culture, identity, creativity – are important. For disadvantaged regions, the arts can play a key role in creating or challenging different views of ‘development.’ By providing an opportunity for expression, for protest, for telling stories, for reflecting aspects of local identity, the arts are in a position to affirm and even create new resources from within disadvantaged regions. Artists and creative people in general have a key role to play. Rather than being harnessed for others’ purposes, I would like to see the arts – particularly community-based arts – setting the regional development agenda.



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M.S. Mowbray (2003). “The New Communitarianism: Building Great Communities or Brigadoonery?” Paper presented at the Centre for Applied Social Research, Seminar: Building Better Communities (RMIT University, October)

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Lynn Stephen (1991). “Culture as a Resource: Four Cases of Self-managed Indigenous Craft Production in Latin America,” Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 40(1), pp. 101-130