Rural Arts ‘Punches above Its Weight’

A “creative placemaking” funder says that supporting rural arts and culture projects provides a good return on their investment.

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Editor’s Note: ArtPlace America, a national arts funding collaboration, recently announced its third cycle of grants, including support of nine rural projects working through arts and culture to build stronger communities. ArtPlace America sent the Daily Yonder an announcement highlighting these rural grantees. Since this funder went to the trouble to pay special attention to some rural projects, we asked Communications Associate George Abbott to explain why. Here is his response.

The most compelling reason for investing in arts and culture in rural communities was summed up best by former ArtPlace America Director Carol Coletta. Put simply, she said, creative placemaking “punches above its weight” in those communities.

Money goes further in smaller, rural communities. This round, ArtPlace America has an average grant size of $280,000. That amount of money can transform the outlook of a small community, whereas in a city like New York or Los Angeles, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Rural communities often have excellent arts and culture assets that are underutilized, unknown to those outside the area and possibly falling into disrepair. A relatively small investment can leverage these assets to produce a real improvement in quality of place.

At ArtPlace America we classify a rural community as one outside a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA’s are counties that contain an urban area with 50,000 or more inhabitants, or adjacent counties with strong economic ties to that urban center).

I like to give the example of Wilson, North Carolina.  Wilson was suffering from the same issues that afflict all too many rural communities. Vacancies in the downtown area had sucked the life from the town, and young people were leaving to live in more vibrant, “happening” places.

The town was thinking of how to bring life back to their downtown and decided to renovate a park. Then they hit upon the idea of focusing the park around local folk artist Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs. Before the park renovation, they were rusting and out of view, in a field in Wilson County. Mr. Simpson, now 93, was unable to care for them any longer.

Submitted photo
The Prattsville Art Center in south central New York was located in the path of Hurricane Irene.

The whirligig renovation produced jobs, and the park has attracted national attention and positive media stories. Without the whirligigs at the heart of this transformation, they would have created a nice but unexceptional park, would not have gained national attention and likely wouldn’t have attracted new investment or tourists downtown. Putting underused local assets at the heart of the project is what makes it a one-of-a-kind source of local pride, and something that attracts outside visitors. It has the potential to be a game changer for Wilson.

Some rural communities have seen steep declines in population as young people leave to live in places with more opportunity. Art is a great way to create a vibrant and diverse community that will encourage them to stay or return to a rural area.

This year’s rural grants provide some great examples. In Blue Lake, California, a $350,000 grant will help a prominent theater school, Dell’Arte, to activate an artisanal, former industrial, hub in The Mad River Industrial Art Park. Dell’Arte’s artist director, Michael Fields, says: “Blue Lake is becoming quite a cool place to be.” Arts and culture activities attract young and mobile artists, making the place more desirable for others.

In Ajo, Arizona, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) is on a mission to revitalize the town center and make it an attractive place to live. They face some significant challenges, yet they are well positioned to overcome them. Ajo was originally constructed as a set of three, segregated “company towns” by the mining industry. When the mining industry left, the town center was decimated. ISDA will use a $536,740 grant to transform a former elementary school into the Sonoran Desert Retreat Center. The center will feature local artists driving discussions around ethnic issues and border policies and will seek to break down the historical barriers in the community.

Submitted photo
A grant to the Lanesboro Arts Center in Lanesboro, Minnnesota (population 754) will support work in the heart of this rural community.

Some of our nation’s richest cultural assets are found in Native American tribes. The Makah Tribe, in Neah Bay, Washington, will receive a $500,000 grant to develop a traditional Longhouse Commons on the Waterfront Trail. The Longhouse Commons will replace an uncovered, seasonally used, cement platform and become a year-round cultural center and meeting place, host to traditional Makah dances and celebrations.

Given these compelling examples, it should be clear why ArtPlace America chooses to invest heavily in rural communities. ArtPlace America is showing that great art and culture are found throughout the country. Not only are they present in rural America, they can be the driver to revitalize communities. 

This year ArtPlace America invested $3.1 million in nine creative placemaking projects in rural communities. The complete list is below, or visit www.artplaceamerica.org, @ArtPlaceAmerica or Facebook:

 

Lanesboro Arts Campus, $ 313,000 to Lanesboro Arts Center (Lanesboro, MN)
Lanesboro Arts Center seeks support to transform the entire rural community of Lanesboro, Minnesota (pop. 754) into the Lanesboro Arts Campus.

Neah Bay Village Longhouse Commons, $ 500,000 to Makah Tribe (Neah Bay, WA)
The Makah Tribe will develop a Longhouse Commons along the planned Waterfront Trail on the Makah Indian Reservation in downtown Neah Bay to serve as a year-round indoor/outdoor community gathering and performance space.

Old Town Artists Residency to $ 150,000 to Bunnell Street Arts Center (Homer, AK)
Old Town Artists Residency program will galvanize the community around Homer’s Old Town neighborhood through the creation and presentation of new work by artists in residence that activates the arts center’s space and surrounding outdoor sites including the Old Town People’s Garden Greenway.

Prattsville Art Center and Residency, $ 200,000 to Town of Prattsville (Prattsville, NY)
Central to its rebuilding efforts, the Town of Prattsville will renew a flood damaged building into Prattsville Art Center and Residency to engage artists-in-residence in town planning and design as well as public exhibitions and events to reimagine the future of this rural town as it recovers from a natural disaster.

Rainforest Theatre Festival, $ 250,000 to Perseverance Theatre, Inc (Douglas, AK)
Perseverance Theatre will develop a summer theatre festival with the potential to reach visitors and locals with a rich mix of full productions, new play development and works in process, and training opportunities that provide authentic experiences in Juneau to encourage cultural tourism.

Sonoran Desert Retreat Center & Residencies, $ 536,740 to International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) (Ajo, AZ)
The International Sonoran Desert Alliance will accelerate creative placemaking in Ajo, Arizona through the completion of its Sonoran Desert Retreat Center, the launch of an artist residency program at the retreat center featuring traditional and contemporary Tohono O’odham and Mexican artists, and the creation of a tri-national border-themed community arts installation.

The Mad River Industrial Art Park, $ 350,000 to Dell’Arte (Blue Lake, CA)
As a pioneer in creating “theatre of place,” Dell’Arte and its partners will bring that vision to the rebranding and activation of the Mad River Industrial ArtPark. Through curated arts programming, visual identifiers and the expansion of its own Mad River Festival to this space, Dell’Arte will connect art, industry and artisanal cultural work to promote economic development in the rural California community of Blue Lake.

The Walter Soboleff Center, $ 475,000 to Sealaska Heritage Institute (Juneau, AK)
The Walter Soboleff Center, a 29,000 square foot cultural arts center, will stand in the center of downtown Juneau, adjacent to the historic district, one block from the waterfront, and in close proximity to the State Capitol and the shops and restaurants frequented by residents, the legislature, and hundreds of thousands of tourists whose cruise ships dock at the wharf each summer. Through its design and programming the Center will establish Juneau as the primary destination for authentic Alaskan Native art experiences.

Uniontown Creativity Center, $ 362,300 to Uniontown Community Development Association (Uniontown, WA)
Building on nearly 20 years of volunteer-led revitalization efforts, the expansion of the self-sustaining Uniontown Creativity Center and associated public art installations will improve the connection to the rural town’s historic business center, increase the integration of creativity in the town’s fabric and solidify the identity of Uniontown as a center of creativity.

 

 

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