From Chasing Smokestacks to Building Assets

Photo Credit: Epicenter (Utah)

Kelly Asche (Center for Small Towns), Michele Anderson (Springboard for the Arts) and Courtney Bergey (Community and Economic Development Associates) reflect on why rural community and economic development leaders looking for new inspiration and tools for their communities will not want to miss the 2017 Rural Arts and Culture Summit at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

“Young people are leaving small towns.”

“Rural areas are dying.”

“Many small towns are playing a role in their own demise.”

These are just some of the phrases repeated in news articles, academic journals, decision-makers, and our friends and family. So ingrained is this narrative, that it is the starting point for most journalists. In a recent article in the Daily Yonder titled “Just Say No to ‘Poverty Porn’”, Kentucky Community Developer Aaron Phelps wrote about being contacted by Fox News to do a story about Appalachia. Instead of visiting to learn from local experts about the nuances of the area, the intention to connect fell short:

“It turns out what they actually wanted was an escort and introduction to the poorest mountain community we knew of. The story they had already decided to tell before they stepped foot in the region was how politicians have forgotten the area and forsaken the people around the issues of poverty and the drug epidemic. Spoiler: We said no.”

There are two problems with this framing of rural issues: it ignores data and facts that counter this narrative, leading to mixed messages and confusion; and it shapes how our communities think about themselves and how they approach community development. And while things are not perfect– the citizens in our communities are getting older, tensions are rising in communities that have large immigrant populations, and our ability to hold civil discussions to discuss serious challenges are being challenged– a shift is happening in our approach to community development. Instead of focusing on recruitment of large employers which rarely work and only end up cannibalizing nearby small towns, communities are beginning to focus on the recruitment of people with a focus on community assets.

Some of those assets are local artists and arts organizations. There are examples of small towns across the country developing their own identity and telling their own story. And a renewed focus on local artists is playing a major role in reshaping the narrative, bridging divides and impacting the local economies.

Whether they’re working on new paintings in their studios in the woods, or helping residents codesign public spaces, artists have unique skills in connecting opposing perspectives and creating beauty out of chaos. So they can also play a significant role help reframe local issues, create a stronger sense of place and engage more voices than a traditional survey or town hall might. And the exciting thing is that this transformative community change through art can be both serendipitous and strategic –by visiting a gallery exhibit, for example, someone’s mindset might shift about the need to protect the environment. And by intentionally partnering with artists, community organizations might get themselves “unstuck” from traditional or outdated processes, and as a result come up with breakthrough solutions to local challenges.

Here are a few ways that we have seen artists helping rural communities meet their full potential with local challenges and opportunities. You can learn about each of these projects in more detail at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit.

  1. Boosting Local Economy

Driving the economy through business activity: The arts and culture sector can make a significant impact on small town economies. One example is Grand Rapids, Minnesota (population just under 11,000), where the economic impact of the arts is $5.1 million. This figure includes $2,833,920 of direct investment by arts organizations in jobs, capital costs, and services, as well as $2,246,065 in event-related, patron-driven spending, such as food, lodging, and shopping.

Bringing life to vacant places: Artists can reimagine community spaces, spark downtown revitalization, and deliver new solutions to old problems. In Ajo, Arizona, an abandoned town center and vacant school building have been transformed into a vibrant colony for artists and entrepreneurs. In Lanesboro, MN, artists worked with local government to address civic infrastructure issues, creating the “Poetry Parking Lot” and art-adorned walking trails to get pedestrians downtown safely.

Poetry Parking Lot, Lanesboro Arts, Lanesboro, MN

Encourage entrepreneurship: Artists, whether they’re booking performances or selling prints, are entrepreneurs, and their creative talent creates a snowball effect in attracting new business activity and outside investment. In addition to their own work, many artists provide vital creative services to other businesses and organizations in their communities, using graphic design, video production, and other new media, artists equip fellow businesses with relevant, strategic marketing. Leaders in Red Wing, Minnesota, recognized this contribution and started Red Wing Ignite to support creative entrepreneurs, supplying the community with resources, business planning, and collaborative space.

Springboard for the Arts’ Noah Keesecker leads a workshop about social media to the cohort class of Red Wing Work of Art students
  1. Creating a sense of local pride and Identity

Inspiring Civic Engagement: In Fergus Falls, through Springboard’s Hinge Arts at the Kirkbride residency program, Mary Rothlisberger, who calls herself a “citizen artist,” wanted to create something that would motivate local residents to attend city council meetings. After talking with people about their interest in local government, she created the Citizen Kit, a small red box complete with City Council meeting “punch cards,” citizen pledge cards to put in your wallet, and buttons. The citizen kits came complete with a spray painted gold hole punch, for local community leaders to use when they saw people attending city council meetings.

Citizen Kit by Mary Rothlisberger, Fergus Falls, MN

Improving Liveability: In Green River, Utah, a trio of Auburn University architecture graduates founded Epicenter, which provides housing and business resources and promotes the arts. Their motto is literally “rural and proud,” and their programs, like the Frontier Fellowship, Green River Magazine and various exhibits intersect with affordable housing resources to prototype local solutions to universal design problems. Now, Epicenter is sharing their lessons with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, who recently launched Partnership Art through a major investment from ArtPlace America, with the hopes to better engage and respond to the New American populations in Southwest Minnesota.

Making more inclusive communities: Many rural communities across the country are experiencing significant changes in demographics, and the arts are a great way to encourage neighborliness and bridge the many cultures that often make up these communities. In addition, the arts help build intergenerational understanding, and even can help residents cross significant political or socioeconomic divides. In Dardanelle, Arkansas, the McElroy House offers a space for residents to share their culture and learn about others, whether through pie making, sewing, poetry, or gardening. By the simple act of creating together, lives and stories are weaved together and the community becomes that much more resilient as a result.

  1. Pushing the rural narrative forward

Sparking urban/rural exchange: Long before the 2016 election, when the general population and the media realized that things need to be done about the urban/rural divide, artists were already promoting the idea of urban/rural reciprocity and exchange, and building models that are needed more than ever today. The Kentucky Rural Urban Exchange (RUX) is one of those examples– an extensive cross sector network purposed to work toward building understanding between urban and rural citizens. Members of RUX collaborate on projects with the vision to provide equity and accessibility to improve the quality of life for Kentuckians and beyond.

Sharing the many “truths” of life in a small town: There are many complexities to small town life and reasons people live there – some out of choice and some out of necessity. Artists can help provide a platform for those truths to coexist, and help us get to the bottom of what we hope for our futures. Dawson, Minnesota writer, Lauren Carlson, recently created “Poems from the Field,” a web series produced by Pioneer Digital Studios, which explores the creative and spiritual lives of rural Minnesotans. Carlson uses poetry as a point of entry into conversations with rural Minnesotans about spirituality, creativity, and meaning.

Lauren Carlson interviewing Todd Buer, featured guest on Poems from the Field. Photo credit: Brendan Stermer

What are some of the ways the arts are impacting your community, and what else would you like to see happen? Share your ideas or favorite projects in the comments below, and then make sure to join us and more than 300 other rural artists and community leaders  at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit June 6th-8th in Morris, MN to continue the conversation.

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