With ‘Live in America’, Fusebox produces a festival in Northwest Arkansas – Sightlines
When the world closed to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the Austin Fusebox Festival was just weeks away from happening.
Fusebox executives took a quick turn, featuring a digital version of the Celebration of the Art of Performance, a popular annual event that features a mix of international and local artists from theater, music and dance.
But this year, for the first time in its 16-year history, the non-profit organization Fusebox decided not to host its spring festival.
Ron Berry, founder and artistic director of Fusebox, said the prospect of presenting what should have been another virtual festival just didn’t make sense. And besides, Fusebox has something else coming up that it’s been quietly working on for over three years.
In October, the Live in America Festival will bring contemporary live performances from eight communities across the United States and Mexico to Bentonville, Arkansas. Not a showcase for the expected type of established fine art or academic performance art that originates from the nation’s major urban centers and art schools, Live in America is rather a celebration of local, community, and local cultural practices.
Berry said: “We wanted to know how people celebrate joy, not high culture moments but the celebrations that emerge from the daily life of a community.”
While the exact festival list has yet to be announced, it could include an indigenous peoples powwow; Detroit blues musicians playing protest songs; artists from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez interpreting the meaning of the border, and a Puerto Rican cabaret that celebrates otherness. And there will be food: a culinary celebration of foodways is part of the program.
Eight geographic communities were chosen for Live in America: Alabama, Albuquerque, Detroit, El Paso / Juárez, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Northwest Arkanas and Puerto Rico. Collaborating artists include Indigenous artist from Santa Clara Pueblo Jamelyn Ebelacker; the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico, Marina Reyes Franco; Ty Defoe, Ojibwe and Oneida performance artist; and Las Vegas-based installation artist Justin Favela.
Live in America is fully funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic effort of the heirs of Walmart Inc. founders Sam and Helen Walton. The festival will be based at The Momentary, a new center for contemporary art, a project by heirs Tom, Olivia and Steuart Walton. A converted cheese factory, The momentary is a satellite of the sprawling and spectacular Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by heiress Alice Walton.
Fusebox received its first grant from the Walton Family Foundation in 2018 and hired community theater specialist Carra Martinez to lead Live in America. To date, Fusebox has received $ 1.17 million from the foundation to produce the festival.
Berry said that as a presenting organization, Fusebox has thought about the nature of performance and art festivals – what cities they are in, and what artists and audiences they include or do not include.
“We wanted to re-imagine a festival and a production process that allowed different people to be at the table,” Berry said. “So when Joe (Randel) invited us to present something to the (Walton Family Foundation), everything went well.
Randel is the foundation’s senior program officer for his home region of Northwest Arkansas. Fusebox had been well known to him from his years in Austin as an assistant director at Texas Performing Arts, the Performing Arts program at the University of Texas.
Rangel said Live in America grew out of the priorities the foundation set for fostering the inclusion of the increasingly diverse residents who inhabit the Northwest Arkansas region. In 2020, the United States Census Bureau reported that Bentonville is the fifth fastest growing city in the country, with its immigrant population increasing by 33% in the decade ending 2019.
“Arts and culture have tremendous convening power and invite people to come together,” said Randel. “This festival aims to bring together different people from different backgrounds and bring many voices from cultural groups that may not be a priority in the traditional sense.”
“The strategy for this kind of event is to bring together different ideas and different people to literally meet in the middle of the country, the heart of the country.”
Berry said he hopes Live in America serves as the model and initial inspiration for a similar festival that Fusebox produces elsewhere, including Austin.
“I hope this is something that, with the right institutional and philanthropic support, we could create in other cities. And not just as a one-time event, but with a collaborative process that really invests in the individual artists and the communities that participate, ”said Berry. “We want to celebrate live performances that are overlooked and underfunded. “