Rural Opportunity: An Influential Creative Placemaking Funder Looks Beyond the City

photo:  Wendy van Overstreet/shutterstock

photo:  Wendy van Overstreet/shutterstock

ArtPlace America recently announced the winners of its 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund, and despite my best attempts to view the news as a dispassionate journalist, I began to read the press release with a set of preconceptions.

Based on last year's funding priorities and the fact that 34 percent of this year's 70 finalists hailed from rural areas, I anticipated another healthy showing for rural projects.

My expectations were validated—and then some.

After allocating roughly 30 percent of investments to rural communities last year, ArtPlace boosted that number to 52 percent for 2017's round of funding, underscoring a rural creative placemaking field brimming with vibrancy, innovation and economic opportunity.

I'll take a closer look at the drivers behind this drastic jump and its larger philanthropic impact momentarily. But first, let's look at the numbers.

A Process of Elimination

After whittling down 987 applications and 70 finalists, ArtPlace invested $8.7 million in 23 creative placemaking projects across 18 states and one U.S. territory. The average project payout is more or less equal to last year's cycle, which found ArtPlace awarding $11 million to 29 projects.

Of the 23 winning projects, 12 are first-time applicants, with one project receiving funding for the second time. Add it all up, and ArtPlace’s National Creative Placemaking Fund has now supported 279 creative placemaking projects in 223 communities of all sizes, totaling $86.4 million worth of investments across 46 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Check out all 23 winning projects here.

As for its emphasis on rural projects, ArtPlace has been telegraphing its intentions for quite some time. Upon announcing last year's winners, ArtPlace noted:

The U.S. Census estimates that approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, and now ArtPlace’s cumulative portfolio percentage investment in rural communities is 21 percent—aligned with the geographic spread of the country's population. Almost 30 percent of our 2016 investments are in rural communities, reflecting a concerted and sustained effort to support this population.

Logic would dictate that 2017's winners would hover around the 30 to 40 percent range, and yet the final number stood at a whopping 52 percent. What explains this huge leap?

Creative Placemaking 101

For an answer, we return to the pool of 70 finalists. Upon announcing the list back in June, ArtPlace noted a significant uptick in rural projects around issues like water use and preservation, as well as broadband access. This is Creative Placemaking 101: Rural communities can't build thriving artistic hubs or lure millennials home without the prerequisite infrastructure in place.

Which brings us to a sampling of this year's winners.

One project, the Bozeman, Montana-based Waterworks, will use a series of site-specific performance events across the Gallatin Watershed to focus on drought and threats to water security "in the face of the rapid population growth and environmental shifts predicted for the coming decades."

Other winning projects link to the home region's history and culture, building upon existing structures and networks instead of creating them from whole cloth.

Consider the East Helena Food and Culture Hub, a project courtesy of the Myrna Loy Center, a performing arts theater in Helena, Montana. East Helena had been a company town for the Asarco lead smelter. "The aftermath," according to ArtPlace, "left a 14-million-ton slag pile in town." In 1991, the EPA launched a Superfund project to restore water and land quality.

Fast forward to 2017. East Helena is experiencing rapid growth in the food and restaurant sector. And so the Myrna Loy Center will launch new culinary arts training programs "rooted in the Eastern European traditions of storytelling, designed to be part of an economic development strategy based in tourism."

Then there's the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, Kentucky. The center will expand its work to address the community’s opioid epidemic through workforce programs in traditional craft and music. These programs, according to ArtPlace, "will also contribute to an increase in economic opportunity through the creation of jobs to meet an increasing demand for handcrafted instruments in the region."

Now, at first, it might seem that ArtPlace's pivot toward rural projects is incidental. Rural organizations submitted particularly compelling proposals to address specific local challenges, and as luck would have it, a majority of these projects won.

But this interpretation misses the bigger picture. Zoom out and a clear pattern begins to emerge. The East Helena Food and Culture Hub and Appalachian Artisan Center projects are especially instructive. By addressing a community development challenge, these projects also boost economic opportunity in their region.

Few developments in philanthropy happen in a vacuum, and ArtPlace's interest in driving economic development in rural America should be viewed within a larger national context.

Bullish on Rural America

Much has been written over the years about major foundations tending to ignore rural America. Theories for this gap include the simple fact that more people live in cities, and the reality that most national funders are based in urban areas.

Recent news, however, suggests funder priorities are shifting.

Bruce Karmazin of the Lumpkin Family Foundation recently challenged philanthropy to step up its efforts, citing both attitudes and organizational capacity as reasons that city-based funders don’t give enough to rural organizations.

As recently reported, philanthropy in the South is surging, although its benefits have yet to reach its most needy populations. And with the election of President Trump shining a light on the struggles of lower-class whites, we're seen an uptick in philanthropy in places like the often-neglected Appalachia region.

This kind of funder interest is rooted in the fact that rural communities are facing serious public health crises (e.g., the opioid epidemic and high suicide rates) and profound economic challenges. Rural regions also tend to be more socially conservative, and we've reported lately about LGBTQ funders focusing new resources on the South. 

Arts funders have come to appreciate that they can do their part to help rural America. Beyond creative placemaking proponents like ArtPlace that are thinking about rural America, we've written about funders like the Maine-based Libra Foundation and the Hunter, New York-based Catskill Mountain Foundation that see the arts as a key to economic development in places without much else going on. 

The Rise of the Rest

I found it striking that around the same time that ArtPlace announced its winners, Steve Case's "Rise of the Rest" campaign, which seeks to promote entrepreneurship in areas like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, launched the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, which will invest $150 million in startups with the support of a group of three dozen of America’s best-known business leaders, including Jeff Bezos, Sara Blakely, Ray Dalio, Henry Kravis, Michael Milken and Howard Schultz.

J.D. Vance, Appalachia native and author of Hillbilly Elegy, the critically acclaimed book exploring the struggles of America's white working class, will manage the fund.

"I felt it was a no brainer," said Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent Alphabet. "Investing in this way is good for everyone: more jobs, more wealth, better products, and it helps our society in dealing with a lot of jarring employment changes."

To which the folks at ArtPlace would likely reply, "Where have you been the last six years?"

Bottom line? ArtPlace has been ahead of the curve in the creative placemaking space, arguing that the arts can be a catalyst for economic development in forgotten rural regions that have the building blocks in place, but just need an extra push.

The rural-heavy composition of this year's National Creative Placemaking Fund, coupled with subtle shifts across the funder community, is one more indicator that donors are coming around to rural American's untapped economic potential.