Yearning for arts can spur small town economic development

MORRIS, Minn. -- If you want to get people in your small town interested in arts as an engine for job and business growth, the first step is to avoid the word “arts.” That was one of the messages delivered this morning at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit, a two-day conference at the University of Minnesota Morris focused on the sometimes elusive sweet spot where arts and economic development intersect.

For an arts-based economy to thrive in a town of 3,000 people, the majority of locals need to be on board. That means avoiding hoity-toity language that turns people off and perhaps expanding the very definition of what constitutes art.

John Davis, who successfully married arts and economic development in New York Mills in central Minnesota, and in Lanesboro, in the southeastern part of the state, is somewhat of a guru on the topic. He laid out his strategy during a keynote address. He started small, buying a broken-down farmhouse in New York Mills for $10,000. He fixed it up and turned it into an artists’ retreat. That led to the redevelopment of an abandoned building downtown that became the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. None of it would have happened, he said, without the support of the city government and the people who lived there.

“I got to know people in the community,” Davis said. “I had conversations. People had a yearning for the arts, they just didn’t have access. I kept thinking, that’s not right that they don’t have access.” An early exhibit at the cultural center, he mentioned, featured a collection of local fishing lure carvers. “Access to the arts builds community. The audience is everyone.”

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By way of evidence, Davis said that in the several years after the cultural center opened in the early 1990s, 17 new businesses started and jobs increased by 40 percent. “My two main points are, the arts have the power to transform a community and anything is possible,” he said.

Putting forth a vision that goes beyond arts and targets the very health of a community helps to draw foundation money as well. As the executive director of the Lanesboro Art Center, Davis recently helped draw a $313,000 grant from ArtPlace, a new consortium of private foundations around the country investing in what is called “creative placemaking.” ArtPlace has funded projects from Alaska to Arizona, focusing on economic development efforts with strong arts components. The United States Department of Agriculture is hoping to piggyback on some of these grants with the money it gives to rural communities for infrastructure.

Another place people are working to establish an arts-based identity is New London, near Willmar. The city’s mayor, Bill Grossman, is a potter. According to the participants in a panel on “network weaving,” Grossman’s artistic bent has made a big difference in the way the community views economic development and deals with problems. New London recently formed a formal alliance between the city, business interests and arts organizations to try to better leverage its resources.

Economic impacts are hard to quantify so far, though downtown, once home to lots of farm implement dealers, now hosts several art galleries. Grossman acknowledged that “getting the business community involved is one of our biggest challenges.”

But the effort is affecting the way the community views itself. People seem energized. “Artists have to think of themselves as legitimate connectors in their communities,” said Christa Otteson, a New London resident and representative of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. “Bill as mayor has been transformative in our town not just in the way we see ourselves but also when it comes to who is at the table when we are envisioning economic development. You need to figure out a way to engage artists in leadership roles.”

“Or at least get them on your side,” said Grossman. He mused that perhaps more citizens would attend city council meetings if they had a band play, or if they were held outside in the park with brick oven-baked pizzas. “When you are the mayor, you sort of have super powers,” he said.