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Creative Development: Crafting Vibrant, Rural Places Through Art

June 7, 2013

When Elisa Korenne moved from New York City to New York Mills, Minn., population 1,195, for an artists’ residency program, she wanted the full Minnesota experience, including the canoe camping she read about in a guidebook.

Local outdoorsman Chris Klein, who arranged the trip, suggested they either call it off or cut back to a day trip when other participants cancelled, but Korenne insisted on a real canoe camping expedition, including sleeping in a tent under the stars.

Now, six years later, Korenne is happily married to Klein and is a proud resident of rural Otter Tail County, Minnesota — a far cry from Brooklyn. A singer-songwriter, Korenne is writing a memoir about her experiences titled 100 Miles from Nowhere.

Among the shows she performs in Minnesota and North Dakota is one called “Oy Vey is Jewish for Uff Da,” a term conveying disappointment that was brought to the Upper Midwest by Norwegian immigrants. Her experience, however, has been anything but “uff da.”

“The ironic thing is that my career is better than ever,” Korenne said. “I have opportunities in rural Minnesota that I never would have had in New York City. I have a wonderful husband, I have a really wonderful career and a wonderful lifestyle.”

Rural communities all over the country are turning to the arts to revitalize declining areas that have lost jobs and population, and in some cases, been devastated by natural disasters. The goal is economic development, creating vigorous communities that attract jobs, new residents and tourists. Leading advocates call the movement “creative placemaking.”

Community Support for the Arts

“Leaders across disciplines are recognizing that the arts can advance public agendas from job creation and transit-oriented development to cultural preservation and regional competitiveness,” said Kelley Lindquist, president of Artspace, a Minneapolis organization that develops arts facilities around the country. “I travel probably 26 weeks a year, and wherever I go, people are ready to talk about arts-led community transformation under the umbrella of ‘creative placemaking,’ and they are ready to have a complex, nuanced exchange.”

Artspace is developing a showcase project in Minot, N.D., which was devastated by a flood in 2011 and faces a severe shortage of affordable housing because of an oil boom. The $9.4 million Minot Artspace Lofts development, which is expected to open in the fall, will feature 34 work/live units that will be rented to artists at below-market rates. It’s the first new building in downtown Minot in 30 years.

The project will feature a gallery dedicated to the Turtle Mountain Tribal Arts Association, which represents members of five tribes in the Dakotas. Backers hope the focus on Native American artists will turn Minot into the “Santa Fe of the North.”

Michele Anderson, rural project director for Springboard for the Arts in Fergus Falls, Minn., said mobilizing community support is essential to the success of rural arts projects.

“I think the key to getting started is getting people from all sectors of the community, not just artists, but business folks, nonprofits and city council people to come together,” she said.

Springboard for the Arts is working on an Artist Resource Center in Fergus Falls, population 13,000, and a Rural Arts and Culture Summit at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Arts advocates have renovated an old Fergus Falls hotel as a work/live space for artists and are restoring an old theater for performing artists.

The rural arts, or creative placemaking, movement took root in the late 1980s and has accelerated in recent years, encompassing many diverse art forms. There are painters, sculptors, wood workers, glass blowers, musicians, actors, weavers, writers — even artisans who make herbal tinctures in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

“Our mission is to grow economies through crafts,” said Gwynne Rukenbrod, executive director of HandMade in America. Based in Asheville, HandMade in America supports economic development through the arts in 13 small towns in western North Carolina.

A 1995 study reported that crafts artists had a $120 million economic impact on the 25 counties in the North Carolina mountains — four times greater than tobacco, the No. 1 agricultural crop at the time, Rukenbrod said. By 2006, she said, that figure had increased to $206.5 million.

John Davis, a guru of the rural arts movement, reported similar economic benefits in two Minnesota communities, New York Mills and Lanesboro, where he led revitalization efforts. Davis is an artist who moved to New York Mills in 1987 after living in Minneapolis and New York.

“It wasn’t with the idea of bringing arts into a small town,” he said. “I went there to get away from Minneapolis. I just painted barns and houses in New York Mills to survive.”

Davis said he became interested in expanding access to the arts in small towns and got the idea the arts could promote economic development. He initiated the New York Mills artist residency program that changed Korenne’s life.

Before the program started, Davis said, a survey indicated 60 percent of respondents said it was a bad idea and they would not support public funding. Town officials contributed $35,000 anyway, he said, and a year later 68 percent said they supported the arts program and annual funding by the town.

Five years after he launched the program, Davis said, 17 new businesses had moved to New York Mills, creating more than 200 new jobs, a 40 percent increase.

In 2000, Davis left New York Mills to direct a new rural arts program in Lanesboro, population 754, in an area of Southeastern Minnesota known for biking trails and canoeing and kayaking on the Root River.

Davis is taking a unique approach in Lanesboro. Instead of housing arts facilities in a single building, he wants to turn the whole town into an art center. “We’re shifting the paradigm so that every part of a small town becomes an art center,” he said.

One of his ideas is to turn the municipal parking lot into a “poetry parking lot” where poems written by local, regional and nationally known poets would be posted on signs.

Davis is seeking a grant from Artspace which recently named Lanesboro one of America’s Top Small Town Art-places. Lanesboro is in heady company as the list includes famous art resorts such as Taos, N.M., and Marfa, Texas, and art-oriented ski or summer resorts such as Stowe, Vt., and Highlands, N.C.

There are as many approaches to rural arts development as there are communities seeking revitalization through the arts. Some examples:

  • Wormfarm Institute in Reedsburg, Wis., which is located on a working farm, requires artists in residence to work in the garden. It displays large, temporary art works in farm fields during its annual Fermentation Fest.
  • Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Ga., features the work of the late folk artist Howard Finster, a preacher who created more than 46,000 works of art.
  • HandMade in America taps methane from an old landfill to fuel kilns for ceramic artists, furnaces for glass blowers and a greenhouse at its Energy Exchange program near Bakersville, N.C.

Co-founder Donna Neuwirth said Wormfarm Institute’s mission is to “integrate culture and agriculture to build rural communities. It’s a living laboratory of arts and ecology and fertile ground for creative work.”

Neuwirth and her partner Jay Salinas are former Chicagoans who founded the Institute in 2000 on a 40-acre farm in rural Wisconsin, naming it after Charles Darwin’s quote: “Every fertile grain of soil has passed at least once through the gut of an earthworm.” Salinas coined the term “cultureshed” to describe their community.

A cultureshed is: “1.) A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history; 2.) An area nourished by what is cultivated locally; and 3.) The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.”

Neuwirth said the Institute selects two to four artists at a time for residencies ranging from three weeks to six months. Unlike most residencies that serve as a “retreat,” theirs is an engagement in the life of a working farm.

The artists build multi-purpose roadside “culture stands” that can be used one day for selling produce and the next for cultural events such as puppet shows, she said.

Wormfarm holds an annual 10-day Fermentation Fest in October, featuring agricultural products that ferment, from grain to beer, milk to cheese and cabbage to sauerkraut, Neuwirth said. The main event is the Farm/Art DTour that takes place along a 50-mile drive through scenic farmland from Reedsburg through three other small towns. The landscape is punctuated with large, attention-getting art installations and roadside culture stands in farm fields along the route.

Neuwirth said the Fermentation Fest attracts 8,000 to 10,000 visitors. A University of Wisconsin–Extension study reported that each agricultural tourist in the state spends an average of $137 in the communities where agritourism events are held, she said.

“Based on that number, last year we brought in well over $1 million in direct spending and that doesn’t include indirect,” she said.

Maintaining a Visionary’s Legacy

Chattooga County, home of Summerville in Northwest Georgia, “was the most depressed county in Appalachian Georgia” about three years ago, said Jordan Poole, executive director of the Paradise Gardens Foundation.

“Everyone who is connected with this project realized we were not going to allow our town to die,” Poole said. “We were going to enhance our town. We have a lot of local crafts that have been handed down from generation to generation, and we’re able to give these people a showcase.”

The centerpiece of the revitalization project was the restoration of famed folk artist Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens. Finster was a local preacher who said he was called at the age of 59 to devote the rest of his life to celebrating God through folk art creations. When he died in 2001 at the age of 81, Finster left behind a huge body of work at his Paradise Garden near Summerville.

In 2011, Chattooga County purchased the deteriorating site, and the Paradise Garden Foundation was created to restore it.

“Paradise Garden is a maze of buildings, sculptures and displays,” the Foundation’s website says. “The Gardens were built from found objects and recycled materials ranging from bottles, bathtubs and toilets to bicycle frames and cast-off jewelry.”

Poole said the restored Garden has brought an estimated $500,000 into the community since the Foundation launched the restoration project.

A Critical Mass of Crafts Artists

Rukenbrod, a glass artist, said the HandMade in America program grew out of a meeting that Asheville Chamber of Commerce officials had in New York on an economic development mission in the mid 1990s. “They got into a conversation about asset-based economic development,” she said. “Continuing the process, they discovered that one of the biggest unknown and uncelebrated assets of our area was crafts artists.”

More than 4,000 crafts artists live in the 25-county mountain region in Western North Carolina, she said. HandMade in America offers those artists entrepreneurial training and works with them to develop markets for their works, Rukenbrod said. The program works with local officials to revitalize their communities, some of which offer artist residency programs, through the arts.

HandMade in America has leveraged $10 million in public funding over the past 15 years with $40 million in private grants and donations, Rukenbrod said.

She said the Energy Exchange near Bakersville offers three-year residencies to two glass artists and four ceramicists at a time.

“We create business incubator opportunities for artists to be exposed to different markets,” she said. “We teach them how to enter the wholesale market place and do booths at a wholesale trade show. We feel like our approach is a holistic approach where we teach crafts artists how to be more successful.”

HandMade in America also works with 650 fiber artists and farmers who raise the animals and grow the plants the artists need to create their products, Rukenbrod said.

From an artist’s perspective, said Minnesota singer-songwriter Korenne, rural arts programs are both personally rewarding and enrich the participating communities.

“I and many artists like myself make life here more rich, more interesting,” she said. “It really makes the area a much more diverse, engaged, community-oriented place.”