When the world shut down to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Austin’s Fusebox Festival was just weeks away from happening.
Fusebox leaders did a quick pivot, staging a digital version of the performance art celebration, a popular annual event that presents a mix of international and local theater, music and dance artists.
But this year, for the first time in its 16 year history, the non-profit Fusebox organization, decided not to stage its springtime festival.
Ron Berry, Fusebox founder and artistic director said that the prospect of presenting what would have had to 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.
This October, the Live in America festival will bring contemporary live performance from eight communities across the United and Mexico to Bentonville, Arkansas. Not a showcase for the expected type of established fine arts or academic performance art that originate in the nation’s major urban centers and art schools, Live in America is instead a celebration of grassroots, community-based and local cultural practices.
Said Berry: “We were interested in learning about how people celebrate joy, not high culture moments but celebrations that emerge from a community’s day-to-day life.”
Though the festival’s exact roster hasn’t been announced yet, it might include an Indigenous people’s powwow; Detroit blues musicians playing songs of protest; performers 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 programming.
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 Santa Clara Pueblo Native artist Jamelyn Ebelacker; Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico curator Marina Reyes Franco; Ojibwe and Oneida performance artist Ty Defoe; and Las Vegas-based installation artist Justin Favela.
Live in America is funded entirely 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 contemporary arts center, a project of heirs Tom, Olivia, and Steuart Walton. A repurposed 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 scholar Carra Martinez to be director of 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 had been thinking about the nature of performance and art festivals — what cities they are in, and which artists and audience they include, or don’t include.
“We wanted to re-imagine a festival and a production process that allowed for different people to be at the table,” said Berry. “So when Joe (Randel) invited us to pitch something to the (Walton Family Foundation), it just all came together.
Randel is the foundation’s senior program officer for its Northwest Arkansas home region. Fusebox was well known to him from his years in Austin as the assistant director at Texas Performing Arts, the University of Texas performing arts program.
Rangel said that Live in America came about because of priorities the foundation had set to foster inclusivity for the increasingly diverse residents that call Northwest Arkansas region homes. In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Bentonville is the nation’s fifth fastest-growing city, its immigrant population growing 33% in the decade ending in 2019.
“Arts and culture have tremendous convening power and invite people together,” said Randel. “This festival is about bringing together different people from different backgrounds and lifting up a lot of voices of cultural groups that are maybe not top-of-mind in the traditional sense.”
“The strategy for this kind of event is to bring different ideas and different people together to literally meet in the middle of the country, the heartland.”
Berry said that he hopes that Live in America will serve as a model and the initial inspiration for a similar festival that Fusebox would produce elsewhere, including back in Austin.
“Hopefully this is something that, with the right institutional and philanthropic support, we could create in other cities. And not just as a one-off event but with a collaborative process that really invests in the individual artists and the communities that are participating,” said Berry. “We want to celebrate live performance thatis overlooked and under resourced.”