When Heather LaGarde met Murielle Elizéon and Tommy Noonan at the bottom of the Haw River Ballroom staircase a few years ago, she just knew. At the time, Culture Mill was only an idea for a nonprofit that LaGarde and her husband, Tom, had after opening the ballroom in 2011. Elizéon and Noonan, both dance artists working internationally, were just visiting.
"I was like, 'These people have to be sucked into the wonderful vortex of Saxapahaw,'" recalls LaGarde, a Culture Mill board member. "They were so clearly full of ideas and energy, very worldly and also very local."
Today, as Culture Mill nears its two-year anniversary, it has become one of the most vital, innovative performing arts organizations in the Triangle. Codirectors Noonan and Elizéon are sitting in chairs placed in a semicircle a few feet from the staircase where they first met LeGarde. The arrangement is akin to what you'd see in a post-performance discussion, with two key differences: The chairs are on the floor, not the stage, and there's no audience.
This is an apt metaphor for Culture Mill, which works behind the scenes, from the ground level, and escapes the confines of stages to connect performers, presenters, and audiences. The nonprofit's work goes far beyond the shows it mounts. It's driven by a deep desire to create a sustainable ecosystem for artists, holding spaces where they can express their needs and importing lessons learned in Europe, where public art funding is more plentiful and pay rates are more established than they are in the U.S.
Culture Mill has made great strides toward this goal in a startlingly short time; it received two grants this year that allowed Noonan and Elizéon to become salaried directors and accelerate their mission to help artists figure out what they're worth. The organization has a three-pronged approach: residencies, performances, and education and community involvement. The "how" constitutes less showy forms of action: being artist-led and artist-driven. Intentionally building relationships with neighbors and other artists, both here and abroad. Listening deeply. Taking risks and asking audiences to do the same.
This work emerges from a fierce commitment to place. "One of the things I want to invest in," Elizéon says, "is how to really infiltrate, in a good way, the landscape here." While Noonan grew up near Saxapahaw, he attended college in New England. Elizéon, who is from France, studied in Nice and Paris. The couple spent several years making and performing work in Europe before they settled in Saxapahaw, an experience that accounts for Culture Mill's attunement to the complex social and economic conditions facing artists in different parts of the world.
Elizéon and Noonan collaborated with many international artists in Europe, going on to host them here, which diversifies local stages and conversations about creative sustainability. Culture Mill's 2016 offerings were split down the middle geographically: local and national artists like Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and New York City's Simon Lee (who, in August, turned Culture Mill's biodiesel bus into a camera obscura for the Trust the Bus series of mobile site-specific performances) and international artists like Australia's The Farm and France's Cie. Marie Lenfant (who, in October, presented a dual program with Noonan's unforgettable solo, John).
It's unusual for a nonacademic arts presenter to draw from adventurous international waters. This local-global ethos benefits artists, whether they live here or are just visiting, by encouraging them to implement elements of Culture Mill's thoughtful model in their own efforts. Take Durham Independent Dance Artists, which is fiscally sponsored by Culture Mill and often incorporates its artists-in-residence into its seasons.
"We often operate with local artists who are young and starting out in their careers," DIDA co-organizer Lightsey Darst says. "[Culture Mill] keeps us thinking, 'What are we doing for mid-career artists?' They have this bigger vision of ways that a small place can be important in a larger world."
When Noonan says that Culture Mill wouldn't be possible without this place, he's referring not just to the Triangle's cultural ecosystem but to Saxapahaw specifically.
"One thing that happens in this town is a circular exchange," Noonan says. "It's the exchange of social capital, goodwill, and actual capital that builds something thicker." He and Elizéon joke that they often conduct impromptu meetings while walking between the Saxapahaw General Store and the Haw River Ballroom. They facilitate movement workshops for students throughout Alamance County. Saxapahaw residents have volunteered their lawns, equipment, and driving skills for Trust the Bus.
This model of mutual generosity has undergirded Culture Mill's philosophy since the beginning. Its artists-in-residence aren't simply making work in isolation; they are trying things amid this community, taking in the rural landscape, and drinking coffee with locals.
Noonan and Elizéon continue to seek "creative ways to be present," as Elizéon says. "How do we continue to do what we are doing, but stay engaged?" This search takes on new import after the elections, in a county and state markedly lacking in political unity. Culture Mill will embark on longer-term, larger-scale projects in 2017 with the aim of sending work developed here out into the world. Look for Articulating Value, an initiative to centralize conversations about the creative economy; an engagement with The Solar Theater Project, initiated by a cross-country trio of theater and lighting artists; and a project bringing together patients with Parkinson's disease and neuroscientists (among others) to consider movement languages.
"[Culture Mill's model] is intentionally starting here and going out and then coming back here," Elizéon says. She demonstrates, as she often does, with physical gestures. Noonan picks up where she leaves off, drawing a shape in the air. "It's concentric circles," he says. "You, your home, your community, your region. How does it extend outward?"
I thought about that as we sat on the floor together, with no audience—Culture Mill's invaluable porousness, in which an ever-expanding circle of engagement draws more and more people in.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reinventing the Wheel."