From the Ground Up – Shaping the New Rural Narrative Through Arts and Community

Even if you have not spent a lot of time in a rural community, you’re probably familiar with at least one of the common narratives of small town America. One paints a bleak landscape of “brain drain,” conservatism, and empty storefronts. The other romanticizes a sense of simplicity – a pastoral, peaceful world where everyone knows their role and plays it well.

However, rural leaders all over the country have been working hard over recent years to “re-write the rural narrative,” and to challenge rural stereotypes driven by mass media. These leaders know that the current rural narrative limits the potential for small towns to contribute to national conversations, and perpetuates a troubling system of social inequity for the people that choose to live in them.

At Springboard for the Arts’ rural office in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, we believe that artists play a key role in rewriting the rural narrative. We have worked for the last four years to make sure that the arts are part of the larger conversation about the challenges and opportunities in rural community and economic development. Through our work, whether providing professional development services to individual artists, or using creative placemaking strategies to address major community development challenges like historic preservation and public health, we have learned over and over again that rural towns are places of intense complexity, innovative collaborations and overwhelming creativity.

One of our favorite ways that we promote arts-based rural community development is by organizing the Rural Arts and Culture Summit with our partners, the Center for Small Towns and the Forum of Regional Arts Councils of Minnesota. This June will be the third time in four years that rural leaders and artists gather to drive forward the conversation about the important role that arts and culture plays in rural vibrancy. Since its inaugural year in 2011, this conversation keeps getting richer with every gathering, particularly as more leaders from outside of Minnesota begin participating (this year a total of 13 states will be represented) and more community and economic development leaders attend.

This year’s Summit takes place June 2 -4, and focuses on the theme “From the Ground Up: Cultivating Creative People and Places.” For two and a half days, the University of Minnesota, Morris campus and the town of Morris will become a vibrant space for networking and learning between individual artists, arts organizations and community or economic development leaders who are interested in creative approaches to small town challenges and opportunities.

We are excited about the “ground up,” focus of this year’s event, which is based on the fact that one of the most fun and challenging things about rural communities is that, quite often, the people who are at the forefront of cultural or social change in rural areas are grassroots activists or volunteers who simply act because they recognize that someone has to. They learn what they need to learn as they go, because of their passion for their communities.

Because of this, we are highlighting a few of the most authentic, community driven projects that we know of, including the work of Theresa Secord, the founder of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, and PlaceBase Productions, a site-specific theater company who will create an original theater performance about the state of the rural arts, based on a series of Story Swaps they have held throughout Minnesota this spring.

In addition, over 50 different presenters will share their own stories of integrating the arts into daily life from the ground up – whether through public art, artist residency programs, projects that use the arts to bridge cultural understanding, build new leaders, and more. We’ll host a unique father-son/arts-community development conversation between Matthew Fluharty from Art of the Rural, and Charles Fluharty from the Rural Policy Research Institute. The Wormfarm Institute will explore their ideas on the importance of urban-rural reciprocity. And Franconia Sculpture Park, Lanesboro Art Center, Dakota Wichohan and New London Arts Alliance will share stories that are sure to dismantle any remaining assumptions about small towns.

The Summit also creates an active space for networking and artmaking. A Local Flavors Celebration organized by our host committee will welcome Summit attendees and the general public into Morris’ public spaces, including their newly opened Pomme de Terre Foods, and their public library, to celebrate the region’s culture through interactive art activities, music and a local food and art market. ArtOrg will bring their steamroller printing press, and the Traveling Museum, a tiny art gallery made from an old ice-fishing house, will showcase their most recent projects.

And finally, we will dig deep into this idea of rewriting the rural narrative through the arts, with three rural leaders who think and act on this concept on a daily basis. Dave Peters from Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level Project will host a conversation with three leaders: Rachel Reynolds Luster, a folklorist, musician and community organizer from the Missouri Ozarks, Dana Johnson, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker from Pioneer Public Television, and Dee Davis, the president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Tennessee.

Not bad for a gathering of small towns, right? A steamroller printing press, a museum made out of a fishhouse, site-specific theater, and a father-son presentation about art and economic development…all at a beautiful University campus, focused on environmental sustainability, where you can see cattle roaming in the distance. The future of rural looks bright from my desk in West Central Minnesota. But there is a lot of work to do, and artists need to be recognized as a resource in this work of promoting rural communities as places of wild possibility. If you love this kind of work just as much as I do, make sure to join us at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit in June.