Artists shaking up and strengthening communities in rural America

Audience members dock their canoes to watch a scene from a paddling theater production in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Photograph taken by the author.

Audience members dock their canoes to watch a scene from a paddling theater production in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Photograph taken by the author.

(Rachel Engh recently received a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She currently lives in Minneapolis and is interested in exploring creative strategies to evaluate the success of community-based arts initiatives.)

Last May, nearly two hundred people paddled down the Minnesota River in large canoes, stopping throughout the three-hour ride to experience scenes depicting the bizarre true story of how Granite Falls (population 2,800) came to be the county seat of Yellow Medicine County in southwestern Minnesota. Audience members watched as local actors and musicians shared stories of Native Americans, French explorers, mussel diggers, and early politicians. Locals paddled next to tourists; kids splashed their oars in the water, and older folks went along for the ride.

The performance, “With the Future on the Line: Paddling Theater from Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine,” sprung out of a partnership among four nonprofit and public organizations: Clean Up River Environment (CURE), a local environmental nonprofit; Wilderness Inquiry, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; and PlaceBase Productions, a theater company out of St. Paul that had previously worked with the community last fall. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Minnesota water trail system, the performance highlighted two of the region’s assets – the Minnesota River and local artists – while bringing new people to experience Granite Falls.

Why artists should be part of the conversation about rural population gain

“With the Future on the Line” is just one example of how rural communities are adopting arts strategies to re-energize towns, spark meaningful conversations, and attract visitors. Patrick Moore, former executive director of CURE and an artist himself, told me he wanted to involve PlaceBase’s founders, Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord, because they are “not only artists with charisma but also community organizers, getting people to think together, act together, helping people find roles to make them feel good and connect them with the larger community.”

This type of connection is what prospective transplants to rural communities are looking for, argues Ben Winchester, a researcher at University of Minnesota Extension who has studied rural population change. Small towns across the county are seeing their cohort of 30-49 year olds grow, a phenomenon Winchester has called “brain gain,” because these folks are in their early or mid-careers and bring with them education, skills, and connections to professionals outside the community. Attracting and keeping people in this age group can be an effective way to create an increased tax base, a more diversified economy, a more vibrant school system (since these people tend to have families), and new ideas and optimism. Only about 35-45% of the brain gain cohort is returning to a place where they once lived, meaning the majority of people who move to rural places have been attracted to somewhere new.

Artists can play an integral role in brain gain, both as part of an incoming cohort and as a means of attracting others. Concerted efforts by a rural area to attract artists can be an especially high-yield strategy because of the nature of artistic work. Researchers Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa argue that artists tend to be “footloose,” meaning they are not tied to a specific place and may work from home; because they often struggle to find affordable space in metropolitan areas, rural areas may be especially attractive to them. Once a rural area hosts a population of artists, they can help the region attract non-artist residents who value the arts as an amenity, and they can engage all residents in relationship-building through cultural activity.

Given this potential virtuous cycle, it is no surprise that rural communities have developed several strategies to attract, deploy, and connect artists as part of broader revitalization efforts. This article explores some of the ways rural places demonstrate their value for artists and the positive results that can follow.

 

Attracting artists by creating a built environment for the arts

Many small towns suffer from main streets with vacant buildings, schools without students to populate them, and housing stock that overwhelms demand. Some rural communities have adopted arts initiatives that repurpose this infrastructure into assets for artists and the community alike.

Oil City, Pennsylvania (population 10,500) started a successful Artist Relocation Program that offers artists fixed-rate financing, grants, and loans for purchasing and rehabbing property. Since 2006, the program has attracted 28 artists, 21 of whom have bought homes, and has brought an estimated $1.3 million to the local economy. Artist Relocation Coordinator Joann Wheeler notes that newly resident artists have also created gathering places, such as Art on Elm, where both non-artist residents and artists make and experience art. (Oil City’s program is based on the even older Artist Relocation Program in Paducah, Kentucky, which began in 2000.)

The Kaddatz Hotel opened in Fergus Falls, Minnesota (population 13,000), in 1914, closed in the 1970s, and sat empty until 2004, when Artspace converted it to 10 units of artist lofts. Eric Santwire was the second artist to move into the Kaddatz Artist Lofts. Priced out of his neighborhood and having difficulty connecting with the artist community in Minneapolis, Santwire, like the other initial occupants, decided to move to Fergus Falls specifically because of the Lofts. The Kaddatz Galleries occupies the first floor of the building, which means that artists can both live and show their work in one building. “The Kaddatz Galleries feels like more than a gallery,” Michele Anderson, Rural Program Director for Springboard for the Arts told me. “It’s a place where people go to strike up conversations.”

 

Deploying artists to tackle complex issues facing rural communities

As these examples show, having artists around can generate investment and a sense of place. A rural area can also launch initiatives that make use of artists’ ability to explore creative solutions for complex issues. This kind of innovation can make a community more attractive to artists and non-artists alike.

Starksboro, Vermont (population 2,000) established an innovative artist residency to do just this. Vermont artist Matthew Perry spent nine months in Starksboro as part of the Art & Soul program, a partnership between the town and the Vermont Land Trust that was funded with a grant from the Orton Family Foundation. Perry facilitated citizen involvement in town planning, a process usually left to elected officials, convening “roadside conversations” in which he encouraged community members to envision the future of Starksboro. Then, he and the residents turned the stories into works of art, and the impact is tangible. For example, the town funded new trails and public spaces and commissioned artists to help design them, creating important assets that make Starksboro a more attractive place to live. Although Perry didn’t stay in the community, he left behind community members who became empowered in planning processes through participating in the arts.

Elsewhere, Springboard for the Arts employs “Artist Organizers” (AOs) to infuse non-arts organizations with creative energy and unique problem-solving skills. Currently, four AOs are working in yearlong positions in the Twin Cities, collaborating with such organizations as a public school system; starting this fall, an AO will be working in western Minnesota alongside staff of PartnerSHIP 4 Health. The artist will create her own art to address public health priorities in the region and engage other artists to work on public health issues.

 

Beyond infrastructure and programs: building networks and strengthening relationships among artists

Housing incentives and programs that engage artists in imaginative problem-solving cannot alone guarantee a thriving arts community. Part of the reason for the success of the Oil City and Fergus Falls projects is that both offer not only physical infrastructure for artists to live and do their work but also places to meet other artists, show work, and cultivate connections with other artists and non-artist residents. It is the relationships fostered in and outside the buildings that make these infrastructure projects such strong models.

Local interactions aren’t the only way artists are building relationships, however: recent initiatives promise to connect rural artists across towns, either regionally or nationally. These associations and online platforms augment the brain gain strategies of individual rural areas by allowing artists to share resources more widely, find support from a larger network of others facing similar challenges, and seize opportunities and inspiration. They can also spread the word to new artists about funding opportunities and ways to showcase their work.

Art of the Rural, a national online platform that collects, organizes, and displays a diverse mix of artists, art projects, and arts organizations in rural places, recently unveiled its interactive Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture. Members can post stories of their own projects, adding to the 500 entries already completed, and many entries links to articles or websites that dive deeper into the stories. The creators note that the map can serve as a way to reduce isolation among rural artists, as artists can find information (including contact information) about people and organizations doing work, giving artists ways to connect with others virtually.

Another online platform, Rural America Contemporary Art (RACA), likewise seeks to connect rural artists to one another. The online magazine, which began as a Facebook group that now boasts over 1,300 members, profiles artists, advertises events, and offers feature editorials. Founder and artist Brian Fink lives in Mankato, Minnesota (population 40,000), and explains that the next “challenge is to take this idea of Rural America Contemporary Art and artists who make it and shift from a virtual community and actually do things out in the world.” Since launching the initial Facebook group, RACA has hosted gatherings for local artists to show their work, including the first ever RACA group exhibition. RACA also recently starting renting commercial space to create Open Space, a community work area for artists.

 

The promise of the arts for rural America

Towns aspiring to brain gain may consider large scale projects like some of those described or smaller steps to engage artists who already live in the area. In some cases, it may be as simple as setting aside some city funds to make art happen.

That’s what Granite Falls did when it invited PlaceBase Productions back to town in October to produce a third and final project. In the absence of grant support, the town came to the rescue: the city pitched in funds, along with nearly 40% of the local businesses and nonprofits. This type of support demonstrates the value residents place on the mobilization of artists in the community to address local issues and bring people together. “Granite Falls is the envy of the region,” Patrick Moore told me. With the Chamber of Commerce and the city investing in cultural tourism, young people buying property, and new businesses opening on main street, Granite Falls boasts amenities that draw people in. Although Granite Falls still faces many challenges shared by other small towns all over the country, local actors and musicians have witnessed how the town can reenergized because of their mobilization. With the community’s support, there’s a good chance that artists will continue to play an important role in the area’s future.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted October 28th, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Interesting examples, thanks. Important to acknowledge antecedents: don’t skip over seminal work such as Appalshop (and notably Roadside Theater), Bob Gard’s work with the “Wisconsin idea,” The Arts Workshop of Rural America back in the 30s, and much more. We tend to write about things as if they were sui generis, but the roots are as important as the branches. You can find some of this in my book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development.

  2. Posted October 29th, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Greetings from the NEA. Want to make you and your readers know about the Citizens’ Institute for Rural Design (CIRD) and the funding available. A partnership of the NEA, Dept. of Agriculture, Orton Family Foundation, and Project for Public Spaces, CIRD supports design-based workshops around community issues and lots of great resources. Link here http://rural-design.org/

  3. Jane Hickie
    Posted November 14th, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    We are in rural Texas, today starting reconstruction on what were church buildings that will be “Venable Center” by May, 2014.(The website, etc. is under construction.) I am interested in using this facility to bring contemporary artists of all kinds to the area. We are within an hour of Fort Worth, whose arts community is world class, we have a University with an outstanding music department and other significant faculty resources, an NPR station, a regional arts programs, and art teachers who offer classes to kids and adults in small groups. There are several art galleries around the square which surrounds the county courthouse, itself an important building. Although there are pockets of energy , creativity and experience in the community, the geography of rural area works against those individual initiatives. There is also a deadening layer of sullen negativity…we don’t want change, we don’t want “new” among some community leaders that turns an already difficult challenge into something requiring heroism.
    This situation cannot be unique and I hope that there are those who see this post who have guidance about how to move forward.
    Thank you.

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