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A sampling of folklife and cultural tourism projects in the U.S.
Case Study: Tennessee Overhill Heritage Project*
Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association
In 1990 the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected four pilot states, including Tennessee, for its heritage tourism initiative. Within each state, four areas were chosen for pilot projects. Linda Caldwell, then the director of the Etowah Arts Commission, was encouraged by Roby Cogswell, the folklorist at the Tennessee State Arts Commission, to apply on behalf of partners in McMinn, Monroe, and Polk Counties. Through this program, they received three years of technical assistance. Money to cover an office and a staff person was provided by the three counties and other local groups. The Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association was formed at that time to manage the heritage tourism program in all three counties.
At that time, tourism in the region had focused heavily on the natural environment and outdoor recreation, and cultural tourism activities had been limited primarily to preservation of historic buildings. Tourism professionals were involved in training, marketing, and regional packaging but had not done much to develop an inventory of cultural resources that could become part of the heritage tourism infrastructure. The Tennessee Overhill Heritage Project wanted to help develop this inventory by "moving beyond the built and natural environment to call attention, build respect for, and preserve folklife." They also wanted to draw attention to vernacular architecture and landscapes in the state which had been overlooked, such as mill villages, company towns, and industrial architecture, "So," as Caldwell says, "people would learn to look at roadhouse in the same way they'd look at a restored historic theater."
From 1990-94, they undertook this work without a folklorist, but in 1995, an NEA Expansion Arts grant allowed them to hire a folklorist, Brent Cantrell, to develop programs that showcased traditional arts and to train professionals at rural history museums and other local cultural organizations to be arts presenters. Caldwell notes that a big part of Cantrell's job was "educating local people as to possibilities local art forms would provide." He also worked closely with local non-profits on technical skills such as festival development and financial record keeping.
During the consultancy, Cantrell put together the first artist directory for the region. To produce the first directory, research was required to identify the artists, art forms, and art venues in the region. Tennessee Overhill is now working on the third printed edition and an online version of this directory, which will include links to artists in the region already selling things over the internet.
Caldwell notes that the folklorists working with tourism professionals in the region have at times found the "marketing hype" from some tourism professionals "a little hard to take." Luckily, she notes, many of the tourism councils are small and not likely to bulldoze over cultural interests.
Oftentimes, she adds, urban chambers of commerce and tourism professionals "think everything should be paid advertising," not realizing that rural areas dealing with such small budgets "must be creative with what little money they get." She adds, "when doing tourism without a big marketing budget, editorial copy is your bread and butter, and the undiscovered angle folklife subjects often provide is your ticket to getting an angle with the newspaper."
The Directory was distributed to sponsors of county fairs, local arts festivals and art shows as well as through chambers of commerce. News releases offered copies of the Directory to be sent to residents of the three counties at no cost. Free copies were sent to local public libraries, to all Directory artists, and to elected officials. The Directory is available to interested parties outside the three-county region for a small shipping and handling charge.
The overall response to the Directory has been very positive. The Directory includes all types of artists, not just traditional artists. "Basically, if you wanted to be in it, you could be in it," Caldwell comments. They made the decision not to avoid the hornet's nest of designating the level of quality in Directory, so they frequently get calls form local presenters who are calling for more detailed information about the individual listings. They have heard that people producing craft fairs in the region have been using the Directory as a mailing list; this is just one of the ways in which the Directory has served to network local artists together who were not formerly aware of each other. Caldwell also says that the people included in the Directory "have thanked us for just being included—it has been important to them in validating the worth of their artistic activities, which might not have been acknowledged before by the public."
A current version of the artist directory now being developed will focus on people who make things focusing on the recreational and occupational uses of the national forest, such as turkey callers and duck boxes. In planning for the marketing venues, they very consciously wanted to make sure these things were still available in them in "little local stores where they already are being sold" and tried not to cut into local stores' business with alternate venues. To do this, they first "took a look at where things are being sold, as well as find out which venues want to sell more and which don't."
Tennessee Overhill undertook another tourism-related project when they received a contract to manage cultural programs accompanying the whitewater slalom competitions for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which took place on the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tennessee. Folklorist Brent Cantrell managed the event, which included artists from western North Carolina, north Georgia, and Tennessee. Because their performance stages were located along the sign-in walkway on way to the slalom race observation bleachers, the schedule was arranged to be more active during times when the audiences were coming and going rather than during the actual races.
Some Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association project activities were more local in focus, such as the Japanese Spring Festival, which compared spring in east Tennessee to spring in Japan. The rationale behind this event was to provide cross-cultural exposure between the local population and the Japanese high school students attending a Japanese boarding school that had recently been converted from an old military academy in Sweetwater, Tennessee.
Tennessee Overhill has also approached the whitewater rafting community, which has been a strong component of local tourism since the 1970s and already has a good deal of marketing sophistication. This group was initially wary that cultural activities might not appeal to river visitors. Tennessee Overhill has succeeded in convincing the rafting community that a package that includes natural AND cultural resources will serve them well by adding to the variety of things tourists can do in the region as well as by encouraging year round visitation. Tennessee Overhill is now working on products which can be specifically packaged with the whitewater activities, such as the new version of the directory mentioned above, which will focus on traditions and arts related to the rivers.
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