Country Creatives: When Artists Go Rural

starkville door PetersA select group of rural communities have become hubs for artists, spinning stronger since the 1990s. What makes some rural communities attractive to creative types?

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Starkville Arts Festival 2006Painted door
Starkville Arts Festival
Oktibbeha County, MS

Photo: Frank Peters

Imagining a vibrant arts culture, most people think SoHo not silo. But a new reality has emerged since the 1990s, according to the Economic Research Service. Tim Wojan writes that "increasingly, the arts are concentrating in other, less populated areas throughout the country, including small, completely rural counties."

Wojan has found, too, that the profile of rural arts locales is changing. While in the '90s, rural painters, potters, and designers tended to gather in high amenity recreation areas (like the Rockies) over the past decade, new artist communities are blossoming in less glamourous places: like Riley, Kansas; Bayfield, Wisconsin; and Oktibbeha, Mississippi.

Wojan stresses that the rural arts phenomenon is "not widespread." Rather, artists have tended to congregate in a few "select" rural communities. Generally, these non-metro bohemias are far from urban centers. But Wojan writes, "The single characteristic most strongly associated with rural arts magnets in 1990 and 2000 was the ability to retain college-educated workers."

Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, is one such "select" rural area with high numbers of performers, entertainers, and artists. In the east-central region of the state, it's located about 120 miles from both the state capital, Jackson, and Birmingham, AL, far enough away from any city to muster its own cultural identity and dynamism. In keeping with Wojan's conclusions about rural arts hubs, Oktibbeha is home to Mississippi State University, and so is institutionally equipped to retain (and to create) educated people.

The university's spinoffs to the arts community are immeasurable. There's a well-paid pool of trained fine artists here (the faculty) as well as a stream of visiting artists who pour through the county, to challenge and invigorate the community. Just one example: this past spring MSU brought photographer and conceptual artist Sandy Skoglund to the campus to give a lecture and create an arts installation.

But the university's not all there is to it. Beyond MSU itself, Starkville residents have organized what appears to be an enormously busy local arts council. The group sponsors diverse events throughout the year (currently, it's presenting “Less than 100 for Less than 100,” a big sale of local artists' work). The group also organizes trips to museums in the Southeast and supports "emerging artists" with small grants. It also offers two $1000 scholarships to local high school grads who are going on to pursue the arts in college.

A message from the Rural Assembly

Andrew LarkAndrew Lark
award-winning art teacher
of Starkville High School

Perhaps most telling are the schools' arts commitments and achievements — we're not talking about Mississippi State, now, but Starkville High School. The district received the historic Bunch House, which was moved to the high school campus to be the art department for the high school (Rural or urban, did your high school have an art class, an "art department," its own art building?!). The high school's art teacher, Andrew Lark, was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2003 and has led his students to scores of state and national awards. "Altogether his students have received more than $1.2 million in scholarships."

Have other rural communities with large state universities had anything like Starkville's success in building out an art culture, one that attracts and can keep a population of artists? How have counties without local universities managed to become arts meccas? We'd hope to learn the creative secrets of these other rural counties with high numbers of "art and design workers."

Here are the top fifty rural counties based on the percentage of their workforce employed as artists.

Creative class county codes, with share in the arts

RankCountyState
1Pitkin CountyColorado
2Haines BoroughAlaska
3San Juan CountyColorado
4Dukes CountyMassachusetts
5San Miguel CountyColorado
6Mono CountyCalifornia
7Eagle CountyColorado
8Taos CountyNew Mexico
9Taney CountyMissouri
10Routt CountyColorado
11Summit CountyColorado
12Blaine CountyIdaho
13San Juan CountyWashington
14Teton CountyWyoming
15Lexington cityVirginia
16Gunnison CountyColorado
17Gallatin CountyMontana
18Nantucket CountyMassachusetts
19Rappahannock CountyVirginia
20Jefferson CountyWashington
21Ouray CountyColorado
22Leelanau CountyMichigan
23Lincoln CountyNew Mexico
24Grand CountyColorado
25Teton CountyIdaho
26Keya Paha CountyNebraska
27Maui CountyHawaii
28Windham CountyVermont
29Whitman CountyWashington
30Columbia CountyNew York
31Albany CountyWyoming
32Mason CountyTexas
33Door CountyWisconsin
34La Plata CountyColorado
35Clay CountySouth Dakota
36Carroll CountyArkansas
37Windsor CountyVermont
38Judith Basin CountyMontana
39Lamoille CountyVermont
40Monroe CountyFlorida
41Lincoln CountyGeorgia
42Sevier CountyTennessee
43Kauai CountyHawaii
44Wallowa CountyOregon
45Glascock CountyGeorgia
46Gillespie CountyTexas
47Island CountyWashington
48Cook CountyMinnesota
49Walton CountyFlorida
50Northumberland CountyVirginia
50Oktibbeha CountyMississippi
50Fisher CountyTexas

These are the top fifty rural counties based on the number of artists living there.

Creative class county codes, with share in the arts

RankCountyStateNumber of Artists
1Litchfield CountyConnecticut1260
2Maui CountyHawaii1205
3Hawaii CountyHawaii897
4Eagle CountyColorado884
5Gallatin CountyMontana826
6Beaufort CountySouth Carolina740
7Monroe CountyFlorida709
8Monroe CountyPennsylvania670
9Grafton CountyNew Hampshire660
10Pitkin CountyColorado656
11Nevada CountyCalifornia656
12Merrimack CountyNew Hampshire654
13Humboldt CountyCalifornia643
14Taney CountyMissouri622
15Sevier CountyTennessee603
16Baldwin CountyAlabama596
17Cheshire CountyNew Hampshire587
18Walworth CountyWisconsin584
19Columbia CountyNew York555
20Davidson CountyNorth Carolina545
21Windsor CountyVermont523
22Kennebec CountyMaine515
23Summit CountyColorado506
24Grand Traverse CountyMichigan506
25Sussex CountyDelaware499
26Mendocino CountyCalifornia495
27Windham CountyConnecticut486
28Franklin CountyPennsylvania473
29Washington CountyVermont468
30Midland CountyMichigan465
31Taos CountyNew Mexico461
32Rowan CountyNorth Carolina450
33Kauai CountyHawaii449
34Iredell CountyNorth Carolina448
35Windham CountyVermont446
36Island CountyWashington446
37Moore CountyNorth Carolina438
38Riley CountyKansas435
39Allegan CountyMichigan427
40Rutland CountyVermont426
41Wayne CountyOhio423
42La Plata CountyColorado417
43Payne CountyOklahoma413
44Chautauqua CountyNew York413
45Adams CountyPennsylvania410
46Portage CountyWisconsin409
47Kosciusko CountyIndiana394
48Flathead CountyMontana385
49Columbiana CountyOhio377
50Routt CountyColorado376

A message from the Rural Assembly

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