How is Arts-Focused Development Breathing New Life into Rural Communities?

It may occasionally seem that we have a bias toward more urban-flavored arts philanthropy, but you can't really blame us. That's where most of the action is. What's more, the action reflects the prevailing demographic trends sweeping the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, which exceeded the overall growth rate of 9.7 percent for the same decade. 

Urban areas now account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, up from 79.0 percent in 2000. Although the rural population grew by a modest amount from 2000 to 2010, it continued to decline as a percentage of the national population.

As you can imagine, this trend can adversely impact rural citizens' access to arts and arts education. It's a topic we've looked at before. We noted that Washington, Pennsylvania-based WashArts, which serves West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania, received a $200,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Bendum Foundation to coordinate a program designed to recruit teaching artists and organize a variety of activities at several rural districts around the area.

We also looked at how the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) received $750,000 from the Laura Goad Turner Charitable Foundation to support arts education for area students and provide general support to advance SKyPAC’s mission.

In both of these instances, regionally focused foundations allocated funds to supplement tight arts education budgets in local school districts. In other words, their funding builds on an existing infrastructure, rather than creating it from whole cloth.

This brings us to the great state of Minnesota, where rural areas are giving their much-hyped urban enclaves a run for their money. Using funding from various sources—the state government, federal grants, and foundation support—small towns are using their agricultural heritage as a jumping-off point for various arts projects. 

Take the tiny hamlet of Lanesboro, population 754. Equipped with a $313,000 grant from ArtPlace America, the "B&B capital of Minnesota" plans to integrate an "arts campus" within the town. In a case of textbook creative placemaking, stakeholders are embedding the arts into everyday activities. Examples include "engaging residents in building 'surprise' sculptures in unexpected places or making prints with rhubarb stalks at a farmers market."

As this example suggests, small towns need to play to their strengths. Lanesboro is, indeed, the B&B capital of Minnesota, so why not embrace it? What's more, many rural areas—in Minnesota and elsewhere—are realizing that the integrative arts may be their best option for keeping the under-35 crowd from fleeing to greener urban pastures (that is, if urban areas actually had pastures, much less green ones). Art creates a sense of belonging and compels people to stick around.

Also, one should never underestimate the potential of catalytic investment. The Lanesboro arts campus was but the first step in a more ambitious plan. Its creation enabled Lanesboro Arts, the organizational brains behind the whole operation, to renovate local galleries and create an artist residency center.

Which brings us back to the role of private dollars. As noted, Lanesboro was a recipient of an ArtPlace America grant. But it also has a fervent supporter in the Bush Foundation, who awarded Lanesboro Arts with a $123,528 Bush Prize for Community Innovation grant in 2014.

Good things are happening in the arts in small-town America.