I welcome the opportunity to write about our Arts and the Military initiative in New Mexico. Recently, it has prompted the question, “When is it time to look back and assess the impact of our work as a state arts agency trying to bridge the divide between our arts and military cultures?” Answer: When we realized that the initiative had taken on a life of its own and people who had met at our roundtable events were now partnering on new projects of their own design.

In a state with two million people spread out over a landmass that’s 10 times the size of New Jersey, the challenges of bringing people together in one place are obvious. Yet we know from experience that the time invested in traveling outside the state capital to cities and rural communities is worth the effort, and is indeed the only way to build trust between neighbors for a new concept. Fortunately, we could rely on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces and Americans for the Arts’ National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military for guidance. We strongly recommend the NIAHM publications on community engagement for working in the arts and military continuum, including Arts Deployed: An Action Guide for Community Arts & Military Programming and Arts, Health, and Well-Being Across the Military Continuum – White Paper and Framing a National Plan for Action.

NMA program coordinator Phyllis Kennedy with Horses for Heroes: Cowboy Up! cofounders Rick Ianucci and Nancy De Santis at their Crossed Arrows Ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Susan M. Saloom/National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military.

In the last three years we have held face-to-face meetings with 90+ new individuals at three roundtable discussions—two in Albuquerque, one in Roswell. In the last two grant cycles, we have funded five new projects with a veteran and/or military focus:

  • Women and War, a spoken word performance subsequently performed twice more for new audiences;
  • Homecoming: Songs and Stories of Service, presented by Lifesongs at the Academy for the Love of Learning;
  • The New Mexico Music Awards Veterans Songwriting Project, two years; and
  • Fatigues to Flags, a combat paper-styled project, and the music documentary Love Song for the Dead: Honoring New Mexico’s Sons and Daughters, both produced by the Museum of the American Military Family.

We connect weekly with 200+ people who receive regular updates via Google Groups, social media, and Outlook. We are putting the finishing touches on an interactive asset map of statewide arts and military resources (due late 2018).

These numbers are modest, and we acknowledge, even embrace, the “baby-steps” method of outreach. New Mexico’s motto Crescit Eundo, “It grows as it goes,” aptly describes our philosophy, which we hope is justified by the initiative’s sustainability.

NMA program director Lilli Tichinin leads the Library of Congress Veterans History Training during the Love Armor 10th Anniversary exhibit at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe. Photo by Nick Sanchez/for the New Mexican.

Accepting new nonprofit arts organizations into our grantmaking program is one thing. Taking on additional programming at a small agency with no additional funding is not something we could have attempted at the beginning of our efforts. But, many hands make light work, as they say. Recently, we were privileged to collaborate with 10 partners and the artist Shirley Klinghoffer to produce the Love Armor Project 10th Anniversary Exhibition and Community Outreach Program.

It was exhilarating to brainstorm on Love Armor 2018 with the New Mexico Art Therapy Association, the University of New Mexico’s Department of Behavioral Sciences, Quilts of Valor, fiber artists, the Veterans History Project, two museums in our state-run system, the statewide Bataan Chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights (national LGBTQ organization for veterans and active duty military), local exhibition host, the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, and an enthusiastic Humvee collector in Albuquerque.

American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) with the Humvee Cozee by artist/activist Shirley Klinghoffer, the focal point of the Love Armor 10th Anniversary exhibit at the CCA in Santa Fe. Photo by Susan M. Saloom/National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military.

Peggy Krantz, a small-business owner on Roswell’s Main Street who turned out for New Mexico Arts’ arts & military roundtable discussion in her hometown, said, “I don’t have a connection to the military right now. I just have a heart for veterans.”

We think you will find that this sentiment is not uncommon. Those in state arts agencies know know that one of our great strengths is community engagement. Take the first step and survey your constituents about their knowledge of the arts as a means to healing and reintegration for veterans and military families. Then invite them to the table for a candid conversation. It will be the easiest party you ever threw.

It’s been said that we created a community where one did not exist before. I think it’s more accurate to say that we uncovered a common sentiment and shared values that were there all along.

Additional reading

Horses for Heroes: Cowboy Up!

Love Armor 10th Anniversary Library of Congress Veterans History Project training

Love Armor 10th Anniversary Exhibition & Community Outreach Program

New Mexico Arts and Military Roundtable Summary and Report, 2018