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NDCA Jessica Christy; 32nd MO River Bluegrass Festival; Prairie Plates

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NDCA's new director, Jessica Christy

Today's Segments:

The North Dakota Council on the Arts welcomes new executive director Jessica Christy, a North Dakota native with extensive experience in the Chicago art scene. She shares her vision and plans for the organization.

An episode of Bird Note explores an evening baseball game. It isn't just about the sport; it's also a feast for Common Nighthawks, which swoop under the bright stadium lights to catch flying insects.

The 32nd Annual Missouri River Bluegrass Festival, set for this weekend at Cross Ranch State Park, is previewed by organizers and performers Jill Wiese and Juan Gelpi.

This week's Prairie Plates features Rick Gion exploring North Dakota's unique sausage made with wild rice, bison, and cheddar cheese, sharing what makes it special and how to cook it.

Transcript of interview with Jessica Christy:

The North Dakota Council on the Arts has a new executive director. Jessica Christy grew up in North Dakota and spent years in the Chicago art scene. We hear about her background and plans for the organization.

Jessica Christy

I am a child of two artists myself. I was born and raised in North Dakota. Both of my parents met while they were in art school.

I was raised on a farm just outside of Valley City, a dairy goat farm, in fact, where my parents both worked as working artists. So that's the world I was born into. And I continued it in college, went to Valley City State, got an art degree, and then I got my MFA from UND.

Ashley Thornberg

And then since you have been very active in the arts community, working in Jamestown at the Arts Center, working in Chicago, let's talk about what keeps you motivated and working, because it is often very much a sort of passion project. What gets under your skin about the artistic endeavors that you most enjoy?

Jessica Christy

Certainly, you know, going to school and getting a couple art degrees is one thing, but then to just dive in and being a working artist is, it's kind of like you become a jack of all trades. You have to be a business person, you have to create, you have to do PR for yourself. So I've had to do that throughout my career.

The thing that really, really motivates me is collaborating and working with other artists, which is a big reason that motivated me to want to take on this role. I moved to Chicago, working here for about nine years. And the city is amazing.

It's an amazing city. It's an amazing cultural city. But I kept feeling like I wanted to be working with the communities back home.

I miss the places that shaped me. And that's something that just kind of, you know, I kept coming back to and now I have a young daughter and I want her to know, you know, what rural America is, what North Dakota is, what the prairie is, what the big, beautiful sky is. Getting back home and working with the communities is really what motivates me and collaborating with other creatives and those who are interested in being creative is really exciting to me at this point in my career.

Ashley Thornberg

This place that shaped you, you know, some people could easily just go on the drive, you know, from Bismarck to Fargo and just say it's flat. Other people see expansiveness and imagination and the ability to kind of connect dots and create in the brain. Obviously, you're in that second category here.

When you say that this place shaped you and your art, give us some more details there.

Jessica Christy

So funny that you mentioned the drive between Bismarck and Fargo. I made that drive actually while I was interviewing for this role and it was during the snow geese migration and I won't put Chicago down. Again, it's a beautiful city.

We have a really wonderful forest reserve in parts of the city. There's a lot of greenery, but it's just not what the prairie is. And so I was able to take this drive by Gackle and Jamestown and see the snow geese migrating and my young daughter is with me and I was like, look at all the birds.

That's just, you know, a little bit of magic that we don't get here in this urban environment. So yes, that's one thing. But coming back to the people who are really passionate and in North Dakota, an individual makes a massive difference in the ecosystem because of the population.

And that to me is really, really powerful. So every individual in North Dakota in the culture and the arts matters. That's exciting to me.

It's exciting to not only be on the raw prairie and see the snow geese, but also to connect with the people who are making real change. Not saying that that doesn't happen in every space. You know, everyone who's working in the culture and arts, they're doing a lot of work.

A lot of people are, they have a lot of hats that they have to wear. But specifically, I see it. I see it in the folks in North Dakota who have to wear so many hats and do so much to, you know, bring the arts to their spaces or to their schools.

And that's just, that's just so exciting to me. And I've missed those connections. I've missed making those real intentional connections with the people of my home state.

Ashley Thornberg

Jessica, what are your big plans?

Jessica Christy

Oh, that's a tough question. You know, I think one thing I'm onboarding now with the current Executive Director, Kim Conoco, but she's been giving me so much amazing information. There's a few things that I really want to do.

I think that we have a lot of stories to tell. We are the holder of stories for the arts in North Dakota. And we need to tell those stories.

You know, we're humble people in the state of North Dakota. And we need to share the wins and the excitements and the great things that our communities and our organizations and our artists are doing. That's going to be a focus of mine.

And, you know, I really want to listen and hear what people are doing. I've been away for a decade. I'm excited to hear what people are up to.

You know, I'm excited to get the phone calls and to have the conversations and hop on a Zoom meeting or whatever anybody needs so that I can hear what they're up to. I'm also really passionate about supporting young creatives. And especially voices who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to have creative outlets or have opportunity to take a class, take a dance class or, you know, a visual arts class or a music class.

I'm going to be doing the best that I can do to get those young folks in places so they can be creatives and they can continue their creative path and start it as early as they want to, to keep making our state more creative and more artful and more just full of culture.

Ashley Thornberg

Jessica, what do you think are the most common misconceptions about what an arts council is and does?

Jessica Christy

I think, one, if anybody does know about North Dakota Council on the Arts, they probably think about our granting programs, which is a big part of what we do, right? You know, we receive money from both North Dakota, the state, and we receive money from the National Endowment for the Arts. So they think about us as how we grant money out, which certainly is something that we do.

But we do a whole lot more than that. You know, we are currently in the process of having a very large place-making program called Arts Across the Prairie, which is bringing large-scale art installations to each region, each of the eight regions of North Dakota. We have an amazing folk arts and traditional arts program.

We have so many programs that are happening. And again, that goes back to, we've got to tell our story. We've got to tell everyone's story.

We need to really dig into our storytelling abilities so we can make sure that everyone knows what's going on. But we have a lot of conversations internally about, we just need to make sure that people know that we're here. We're a resource.

You know, we're a state agency that's a resource for those who want to bring the arts to their community or who want to learn about the arts or maybe support the arts. We just need to be visible. And I think that that's maybe, you know, one of the biggest misconceptions that, wow, North Dakota has a state arts agency?

We do and we're here and we want to support you and we want to be here for you and help you grow in your creative endeavors.

Ashley Thornberg

Jessica, you've spent a great deal of this interview talking about the wonderful opportunities really struck by something that you said earlier, which is that in a rural place, one individual makes an incredible difference. There are, though, challenges of being in a rural place or maybe even just the challenge of the fact that it's a large geographical spread.

You know, it can take hours and hours and hours to drive across this. What do you think are some of the areas that are the most opportunity for growth here?

Jessica Christy

We have a lot of supporters in the arts. I think we need to lean on our community members who are out there, who want to, you know, support in a way that might not fit into these grant programs or might not fit into the big sculptures that are going up. But maybe it comes from a conversation that can be had.

I think that that's another beautiful thing about the culture of North Dakota is we make personal relationships and they can happen anywhere. They could start at the grocery store, they could start at the corner store, the single gas station, you know, in the town. Or I think it's leaning on our people to be our voice and to listen to what people are saying.

And you're right, it's a vast state. And I know that the corners probably sometimes feel that, hey, we're out here too. We're, you know, Fargo's the big city and Grand Forks and Bismarck.

And I just want to say I see all of you and I can't wait to have those conversations and meet up with you wherever it may be, whether it's the town hall or the gas station. Or, you know, I haven't had a slice of gas station pizza in a long time, or there's places that make really good sandwiches. Like, I'll meet you there.

Let's have a conversation. And I think it's just leaning on the people who want to support and want to kind of maybe be a connector. You know, North Dakota is made up of connectors.

It's a challenge, but we got a really great... We just have wonderful people who are willing to make those relationships. And I'm excited about that.

Ashley Thornberg

Jessica, early on in this interview, you talked about having to promote yourself and have that business mind. And oftentimes people think that if you have an artistic mind, you don't have a business mind, kind of that left brain, right brain thing. One, kind of how accurate do you find that to be within yourself?

And then two, like, talk about your approach to having to employ those sort of methods on a much larger scale. You are not promoting yourself anymore. You're promoting all of the arts in the entire state.

Jessica Christy

Yeah, absolutely. I think that that misconception about artists just being, you know, oh, they're never on time. They're just kind of flighty is something that rubs myself and honestly, most artists I know the wrong way because we really do have to do it all.

It's a career choice that is all encompassing. And you have to kind of... You're not usually taught it in school.

I'll say that much. But certainly, I mean, I think my experience as a visual artist, you know, showing in galleries and museums for the past 15, 18 years has primed me for, you know, not really being afraid of tackling anything that may be in my path at the council. You know, there's so many things that pop up when you're an artist, whether it's, oh, your piece was damaged in a museum and you've got to figure out how to fix it from afar.

Or we need a PR. We need a press release yesterday, you know, and maybe 21-year-old me had never written a press release. So then I had to figure out how to write a press release.

It's being flexible and open and willing to learn and willing to grow. And having to do that over and over and over, you know, kind of takes the fear out of those new experiences and those new environments. I really love the challenge of a new experience and new programs and new challenges and period.

They're, it's great to, you know, think about how I can creatively problem solve. I guess being an artist has taught me how to just tackle a situation and really dive in and say, hey, we're going to be creative and see where we come out. But it's not a fear-based situation.

It's really exciting to me to think about all the problem solving that's going to be ahead of me in this role.

Ashley Thornberg

Did you ever struggle with leaning in to calling yourself an artist?

Jessica Christy

You know, that's a really interesting question. I see it a lot in a lot of artists. You know, I hear the words, but I'm not quite at this level yet, or I'm not really an artist yet.

I am so lucky that I was born into an art family. And so being an artist was just kind of a part of who we were. It was never questioned.

So I'm, again, it's just, I'm very privileged in that sense, but I hear it from my artist friends all the time. And certainly the identity of an artist is always changing because we're always growing. We're always making new things, changing the way that we, our perspective on the creative, our creative paths.

So it's really easy to kind of have that identity crisis. And I can say that that's happened in my art career many times. But you know what?

An artist is somebody who wants to be creative, who seeks creativity, and it's a spectrum. And I encourage anybody who is interested in the arts and wants to be creative to embrace the term artist, because it's not a specific term that only fits few. It fits everybody.

And you know, we're all born as artists. We're born to be creative. We're born to be visual human beings.

And at some point that kind of falls away for some of us. But I think that it's important to foster that and to keep supporting the artist within us, because even if we're not practicing or making or dancing or performing, being a supporter is equally as valuable. So let's foster that little artist that's born into all of us and keep calling ourselves artists.

It's not this term that's elite. I'll say that much.

Ashley Thornberg

You know, we're talking about supporting the artists, but let's put the onus on the art consumer here, too. I'm looking at a spreadsheet here posted by an artist. Artwork sales here.

Asking price, $1,200. Material and cost, $150. Framing and shipping, $200.

Gallery gets a 50% commission. Comes down to a profit of $250. Spent approximately 40 hours making this painting.

That comes down to an hourly rate of $6.25. What do you want to say to people who say, you want me to pay what for that?

Jessica Christy

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for breaking that down. I think that is an ongoing struggle with makers, with visual artists, with performers, with musicians.

I always say, you know, people aren't necessarily paying for the final product. They're paying for all that experience. That person has gained as they have moved through their career.

You know, you could say the same thing about somebody in the trades. They have experience being a plumber or an electrician, and you call them because they're the expert. You know, your toilet isn't working.

You need an expert to fix it. And you're, of course, you're going to pay them what they charge because you need your functioning plumbing, right? It's the same for the arts.

The arts are an integral, crucial part of who we are in our society to be a functioning whole entity. We need to pay the experts in their field for what they do. And not everybody wants to purchase an inexpensive painting, and that's fine.

But think about going to a performance or supporting young performers as they're emerging in their careers. They're learning to be the experts, and that's a valuable support as well. And, you know, their work and their labor in their fields is valuable.

So when you are buying that ticket to the play or you're paying to see a musician or you are buying a piece of art, think about it as, you know, it's an investment in that person's expertise. It's a final product, yes, and it should be there for us to enjoy. But you're really investing in that person and who they are and who they are in our society and what they're giving to our society as well.

Ashley Thornberg

You're stepping into Kim Konikow shoes. She held this position for six years. How do you describe her legacy?

Jessica Christy

You know, Kim is a really strong arts advocate. It's been so clear to me. I'm a few weeks in and Kim's passionate. And I'm so excited to step into a position where she has fearlessly fought for the arts in this state.

She is just so passionate about making sure that artists have opportunities, that organizations are being supported, and that the arts are being brought to North Dakota. You know, growing up in a state where often you're kind of told, well, you can stay here or you can go off to the big city was kind of, you know, how I felt as a young artist in the state. And I went off to the big city and I really miss the creative communities back home.

And Chicago's, again, it's a great city. I'm excited to get back and I'm excited to continue to do the fight that Kim has been doing for six years. She's really kind of showing me that, you know, you've got to dive in, you've got to fight hard.

But you're doing great work for these amazing organizations and people. She's really passionate. And I'm so thankful to be, I have her as a guide for a month here.

It's been a wonderful introduction back into the state and in the arts.

NOTE: Main Street uses turboscribe.ai to create transcripts from its interviews. The audio of the show is the official record.