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?


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.

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

Rank County State
1 Pitkin County Colorado
2 Haines Borough Alaska
3 San Juan County Colorado
4 Dukes County Massachusetts
5 San Miguel County Colorado
6 Mono County California
7 Eagle County Colorado
8 Taos County New Mexico
9 Taney County Missouri
10 Routt County Colorado
11 Summit County Colorado
12 Blaine County Idaho
13 San Juan County Washington
14 Teton County Wyoming
15 Lexington city Virginia
16 Gunnison County Colorado
17 Gallatin County Montana
18 Nantucket County Massachusetts
19 Rappahannock County Virginia
20 Jefferson County Washington
21 Ouray County Colorado
22 Leelanau County Michigan
23 Lincoln County New Mexico
24 Grand County Colorado
25 Teton County Idaho
26 Keya Paha County Nebraska
27 Maui County Hawaii
28 Windham County Vermont
29 Whitman County Washington
30 Columbia County New York
31 Albany County Wyoming
32 Mason County Texas
33 Door County Wisconsin
34 La Plata County Colorado
35 Clay County South Dakota
36 Carroll County Arkansas
37 Windsor County Vermont
38 Judith Basin County Montana
39 Lamoille County Vermont
40 Monroe County Florida
41 Lincoln County Georgia
42 Sevier County Tennessee
43 Kauai County Hawaii
44 Wallowa County Oregon
45 Glascock County Georgia
46 Gillespie County Texas
47 Island County Washington
48 Cook County Minnesota
49 Walton County Florida
50 Northumberland County Virginia
50 Oktibbeha County Mississippi
50 Fisher County Texas

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

Creative class county codes, with share in the arts

Rank County State Number of Artists
1 Litchfield County Connecticut 1260
2 Maui County Hawaii 1205
3 Hawaii County Hawaii 897
4 Eagle County Colorado 884
5 Gallatin County Montana 826
6 Beaufort County South Carolina 740
7 Monroe County Florida 709
8 Monroe County Pennsylvania 670
9 Grafton County New Hampshire 660
10 Pitkin County Colorado 656
11 Nevada County California 656
12 Merrimack County New Hampshire 654
13 Humboldt County California 643
14 Taney County Missouri 622
15 Sevier County Tennessee 603
16 Baldwin County Alabama 596
17 Cheshire County New Hampshire 587
18 Walworth County Wisconsin 584
19 Columbia County New York 555
20 Davidson County North Carolina 545
21 Windsor County Vermont 523
22 Kennebec County Maine 515
23 Summit County Colorado 506
24 Grand Traverse County Michigan 506
25 Sussex County Delaware 499
26 Mendocino County California 495
27 Windham County Connecticut 486
28 Franklin County Pennsylvania 473
29 Washington County Vermont 468
30 Midland County Michigan 465
31 Taos County New Mexico 461
32 Rowan County North Carolina 450
33 Kauai County Hawaii 449
34 Iredell County North Carolina 448
35 Windham County Vermont 446
36 Island County Washington 446
37 Moore County North Carolina 438
38 Riley County Kansas 435
39 Allegan County Michigan 427
40 Rutland County Vermont 426
41 Wayne County Ohio 423
42 La Plata County Colorado 417
43 Payne County Oklahoma 413
44 Chautauqua County New York 413
45 Adams County Pennsylvania 410
46 Portage County Wisconsin 409
47 Kosciusko County Indiana 394
48 Flathead County Montana 385
49 Columbiana County Ohio 377
50 Routt County Colorado 376