Caitlin Tan Published

Q&A: Tamarack Foundation Stresses Importance Of Art During Social Distancing


In March, West Virginia saw 90,000 unemployment claims. In a typical month the state averages 5,000. According to the U.S. Labor Department, one of the industries hit the hardest nationwide is arts and entertainment — a sector that depends heavily on social events, something that is nearly impossible during the coronavirus pandemic.

We recently spoke with West Virginian artists to see how they are coping, and we wanted to check in with the Tamarack Foundation For The Arts, which directly supports nearly 2,000 artists in the state. They have recently promoted their interactive newsletter to help West Virginian artists still feel a sense of community.

Renee Margocee, executive director of the foundation, talks with folkways reporter Caitlin Tan about the project and the future of the artistic world in the time of social distancing.

***Editor’s Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tan: So, I was looking through and I was seeing that the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts’ goals include, “showcasing and encouraging creative and professional development for artists in West Virginia.” And I’m curious how you foresee that happening going forward, as long as social distancing is still a thing?

Margocee: Well, like everyone in America, and actually across the world, we’re pivoting to deal with the issues at hand with what we have available to us. And I’m fortunate to have a reenergized newsletter that’s been coming out for the past month. And that is the perfect vehicle for us to continue showcasing West Virginian artists and how they are responding in creative ways to this stressful time for sure.

Tan: Another thing in the newsletter that stood out to me that you wrote was, “art is essential for personal wellbeing and connection to our shared humanity.” Can you expand on that, and then also talk about what art can mean for people in these times, even if you’re not a professional artist?

Margocee: Art has served over the years, for hundreds of years, as a way for us to understand our mental states, and that right now we are swinging between happiness and joy and connectedness, and also distress, anxiety and isolation. So I think that in this time when the lines are blurred between our enjoyment of taking a break from our overly scheduled lives, and the very scary reason for the change of routine, that spending a bit of time on creative endeavors provides us a safe place for processing this. We need art now more than ever to help us really remain connected to our reality and to find a way to process what this new reality is like and how to best move forward together.

Tan: I know Tamarack has a lot of exciting upcoming projects. Namely, what came to mind was the 2020 Emerging Artist Fellowship in West Virginia. And for those who don’t know, that includes early career artists that the foundation has picked to help foster and grow into professional artists. So, I’m curious, what is that project look like going forward?

Margocee: Well, it’s been changed, of course. Of the five artists, two of them have had to leave situations abruptly. So, these are really heartbreaking moments where we hate for, again, professional development to be cut short, but I have to say that everyone collectively in this cohort is really responding positively. And one thing that I’ve really been impressed with these young artists is not once have they really complained or expressed any sorrow about what’s happening to them personally, but they’re all finding ways to continue creating.

Tan: It does seem that this is kind of a trying time for artists in a way, but one thing I noticed in the newsletter — a quote that stood out to me — is that “we’re all artists in residence now.” Can you expand on that?

Margocee: We are trying to share that story out to reframe this situation in as positive of a way as possible. And so, a residency is really built around the ability to remove yourself from everyday life and just to focus on your art making. So, while we are not necessarily all choosing to be artists in residence, that is how we’re framing it up.

Tan: Do you have any advice for artists who might be struggling right now, who are having a hard time coping and finding inspiration? Do you have anything you would say to them?

Margocee: I would say, even more important now than ever, we really have to think about our mental health, our mental states, and that oftentimes people think that prioritizing art in a time of crisis is counterintuitive, but I suggest and really advocate that embracing the arts now is more important than ever. I would say that during this time that art should not be seen as a frivolity, but as an essential for our wellbeing.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.