If Spearfish area residents visit the Arts Midwest NEA Big Read website, they might notice some familiar faces featured on their news page. The Matthews Opera House and Arts Center has been recognized as June’s NEA Big Read Grantee of the Month by Arts Midwest.
This incredible honor is an acknowledgment of the months of hard work put in by both the Matthews and their other community partners, BHSU and Grace Balloch Memorial Library, to ensure the NEA Big Read Spearfish program was a success.
When Kyler Flock, community engagement manager at The Matthews, received the email informing him of Arts Midwest’s decision, he was ecstatic. “This is one of the most rewarding accomplishments we’ve had as a team–getting that kind of national exposure,” said Flock. “To say I was excited is an understatement.”
The goal of the NEA Big Read program is to encourage communities to connect through their mutual enjoyment of one great book. NEA Big Read grantee organizations are responsible for selecting the book, promoting it within their community, and organizing several events throughout the three-month-long program to help bring out the themes of the novel and encourage a larger discussion within their community as a whole.
The novel selected to be the focus of this year’s NEA Big Read Spearfish was “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. The book’s main theme emphasizes the importance of art to humanity through imagining how art survives in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of modern society or norms. For younger readers, “The Big Dark” by Rodman Philbrick was selected.
To help increase community participation, over 1100 copies of “Station Eleven” and 100 copies of “The Big Dark” were distributed free of charge to residents in the Spearfish area.
Flock stepped into his role at The Matthews last October, right before NEA Big Read Spearfish was launched. He said the prospect of helping lead such a large project was daunting. “I was a little intimidated,” Flock admitted. “I had to hit the ground running because there were many programs planned that had to be carried through. I was a little scared honestly.”
Adding to the challenge of this already massive project, as of October 2018 the entire Matthews staff was completely new. Despite this fact, Becky Naccarato Eastburn, executive director at The Matthews, said she never felt anything but support from the Spearfish community and other NEA Big Read partners.
“The NEA Big Read isn’t done alone. We really wanted to make sure that this was a community-wide project,” she explained. “Our partners empowered us to take the lead and we were able to build really strong working relationships.”
The first big hurdle was the NEA Big Read kick off on January 12 of this year. The day included numerous events spread across the entire town of Spearfish. “I’ve never been so stressed,” Flock stated. “But once it was out into the community, I never looked back.”
“The NEA Big Read is a program we really believe in and has historically been successful in our town,” added Eastburn. “If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right and we’re gonna go all in!”
From January to March, The Matthews organized and assisted with over 30 events which included everything from themed art gallery displays and performances, to a traveling truck stage that resembled the iconic “traveling symphony” from Mandel’s novel.
Staple Matthews events like their annual Subscription Series performances and monthly Bellman Brown Bags were connected to “Station Eleven” in any way they could be. The Matthews was even able to secure funding to bring in author Emily St. John Mandel for three community discussions about her novel.
For Flock, his favorite NEA Big Read events were those that directly involved the community, such as the gallery exhibits that featured local artists.
“The apocalyptic art reception is a stand out in my mind because it was the first event that we, as a new staff, had built from scratch. And it was an event that engaged all ages from our community,” Flock explained. “It was mind-blowing to see the incredible amount of talent and creativity that exists here in Spearfish.”
Eastburn’s most memorable event also took place in the gallery, “One of the coolest events of my career was having the National Players on the Truck Stage for a special Shakespeare performance. It was amazing!”
“It was an event that was on the calendar, but we weren’t sure what it was going to look like,” she explained. “Our staff came together and we owned it!”
Flock said that after being a part of the NEA Big Read, he is amazed at the incredible impact that “Station Eleven” had on the community of Spearfish. “At the root of the project, it’s showing what one book can do. One book inspired three months of art and programming that highlights the positive sides of humanity. If one book can do that…it really shows you what great art is capable of!”
And now that the NEA Big Read is over, being named as Arts Midwest’s Grantee of the Month is the icing on top of the cake.
“There’s this satisfaction of all of the long weeks, the late nights, the paperwork…it was all worth it!” Eastburn said. “The fact that out of all the NEA Big Read recipients…Spearfish was a standout…I’m just so pumped!”
About Arts Midwest
Based in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest is one of six nonprofit regional arts organizations in the United States. Its mission is to promote creativity, nurture cultural leadership, and engage people in meaningful arts experiences, bringing vitality to Midwest communities and enriching people’s lives. Since its establishment more than 30 years ago, Arts Midwest has been serving audiences, arts organizations, and artists throughout the nine states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and beyond.
About the National Endowment for the Arts
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases.