March 20, 2019

A cultural institution for 50 years, this nonprofit lifts up the stories of Appalachia

Meet the finalists for the 2019 Renewal Awards, a program of The Atlantic and Allstate. Five winners will receive a $20,000 prize from Allstate.

Appalshop, based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, is a film studio, radio station, art gallery, and regional archive. Photo courtesy of the nonprofit

Editor’s note: Meet the finalists for 2019 The Renewal Awards. The annual program that honors nonprofits that are creatively solving problems in their communities is a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. This year, five winners each will receive a $20,000 prize from Allstate. Winners will be announced April 3 at The Renewal Summit in New York City. You can watch a live stream of the event, which begins at 9:30 a.m. EDT, on our Facebook page.

Herb E. Smith has been making films in and about Kentucky and the wider Appalachian region for half a century. “One of the ways I like to say it is, we make films about the things we like here, and we make films about the things that are challenging,” he told PBS NewsHour in February of 2018.

His journey began in 1969 when, as a high schooler, he helped found the Appalachian Film Workshop. Now after 50 years of providing entertainment and education and fostering community, the organization is now simply known as Appalshop.

Today, the nonprofit based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, also boasts an art gallery, 150-seat theater, radio station, WMMT, regional archive, and media production and training facility. According to their 2017 report, the nonprofit provided 5,746 hours of original music and public affairs programming and had 6,000 visitors to their Whitesburg facilities.

[ Read: Meet the finalists for the 2019 Renewal Awards ]

But Appalshop is still producing films, like Smith’s latest documentary, “Our Kentucky River,” which explores both the historical significance and modern impact of the river to the state of Kentucky.

“Appalshop highlights the interconnectedness of the human experience, regardless of race, class religion or region,” said Tanya Turner, radio host for WMMT and Director of Advancement for the nonprofit. “Our region and partners throughout the country recognize Appalshop’s ability to bring unlikely parties together, foster understanding, and advance equity.”

The nonprofit also focuses their efforts on economic development in the region. Through both training and their programming, they inject more than $1.5 million into the local economy each year.

“Appalshop is situated in one of the most economically exploited parts of our country,” said Turner. “This reality means our home and the communities we work in deal with complex, long-standing issues that are not easy or quick to fix.”

So what about the next 50 years? The organization hopes to get more funding to try out new initiatives and programs, but the organization also wants to provide more support for artists in the area through their endowment.

“Appalshop will continue to tell stories that larger media outlets don’t tell, and celebrate the history and culture of this region and its people,” said Turner, adding she hopes Appalshop will build, “a sustainable new generation of artists and cultural workers whose art recognizes the inherent value of all people.”

Follow Appalshop on Twitter @Appalshop. Donate to the nonprofit here.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.