Some towns succeed because they acknowledge their artists’ value


Executive Director
ArtPlace America
Brooklyn, New York



An organization of your size probably focuses on big cities, right?
That is incorrect. The smallest community we’ve invested in is Kivalina, Alaska, which is 321 people. And last year 51 percent of our grant-making went to rural communities. So one of the things we’ve discovered is particularly when you’re having a national conversation, everyone assumes that you skew towards cities. If you actually want to have a balance, that inclusive conversation, you need to over-represent people who have traditionally been excluded. So historically I think upwards just north of 30 percent of our grant dollars have gone to rural communities. It’s something we actually spend a lot of time thinking about.

What are you best known for?
It’s a bit of a weird moment to ask that. What we’ve been primarily known for is our project-based funding, and we’ve given out $82 million in project-based grants over the last seven years. In addition to that, we made $3 million investments in each of six place-based organizations – tribal housing authority in Anchorage Alaska; a comprehensive community development corporation in Los Angeles; Youth Enrichment Project on the Zuni Pueblo; a rural housing preservation organization in southwest Minnesota; a public health organization in Jackson, Mississippi; and a parks conservancy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And we said to them not to change their mission but instead to ask how artists can help them achieve their mission more efficiently, more effectively, and for more of the population. Now we’re making a pivot, and for the next two years, we’ll really focus on knowledge distribution. So how do we take the work that’s been happening in those local communities, and how do we share that with a broader community of practitioners so that they can learn from it, be inspired by it, and in some places replicate it?

And if you got to ArtPlace America, we have write-ups of all the projects we’ve invested in. And you can go in and just say show me the rural ones. Just show me the ones that are thinking about transportation; just show me the ones that are working with dancers. So you can begin slicing and dicing or feel free to reach out to me and I am more than happy to help you curate a list of things that might be interesting.

Can towns look to you for grant money?
Not at the moment. At the moment, we’re doing some proactive investments, but I would encourage [town leaders] to look at the National Endowment for the Arts, which has an Our Town grant program that invests in a very similar format. They also have something called the Citizens Institute on Rural Design. It’s a grant-making workshop program that chooses I think three or four communities every year to come in and do a sort of communitywide charrette around some challenge articulated by the mayor, city manager, some civic leaders. I would be happy to follow up and send some other resources that are potential sources of funds particularly geared toward nonmetropolitan communities.

Can you generalize and say that towns don’t use their artists to their advantage?
Let me say a couple things about that. The first is a weird thing has happened in the history of this country, which is that artists have essentially been separated in many ways from the rest of their communities. I have a colleague who’s a linguist who says that it’s really interesting that we always talk about “the” arts, in a way that we would never talk about “the” sports. Right? Sports is just sports, but with the arts, it’s “the arts.” So there’s been this weird division between art and everyone else. And as a result, there are many communities that sort of think of the artists as maybe, at best, they’re interior decorators. We do the hard work of solving problems, we do the hard work of developing our communities, and if there’s time and money left over maybe we can get an artist to put a mural on it. But in reality, artists have a set of knowledge, skills and abilities that are useful, especially in small-town America. There are essentially two theories of economic development: you can either do something more efficiently or you can innovate. And, at this point, where rural communities, in particular, can’t get any more efficient …. We were losing coal jobs long before coal consumption went down. Because we “efficient” ourselves down right to the bone. So we’re sort of left with innovation. And what that means is that the next big thing in small-town economic development is going to be a thousand little things, is going to be small, light-scale manufacturing – all of it will be light and culture based. Whether it’s making mountain harps in central Appalachia or it’s doing artisanal foods in Greensburg, Wisconsin. Or whether it’s doing artists’ studios in Ajo, Arizona. Artists play an important role, especially in economic development, and also in asset-based community planning and development. Not starting with a problem we are trying to solve, but actually starting with the assets that make the town the wonderful place that we love living in. And not every community is lucky enough to be anchored by major industry. Not every community is lucky enough to be on a beautiful waterfront. Not every community is lucky enough to have an airport or a connection to major transportation. But every community in this country has people who sing, dance and tell stories. So artists are the only asset that is already present in every community of every size across this country; so if the asset is there, why not activate it as part of an overall community revitalization strategy?

What are some towns who’ve made greater economic-development gains by recognizing the value of their artists?
Reedsburg, Wisconsin – Sauk County, Wisconsin, a rural-agricultural community in Wisconsin, two hours from Chicago, two hours from Madison. They’ve created something called the Farm/Art DTour that is an extraordinary 50-mile circuit where farmers, small businesses, and artists come together and create a reason to travel that area and make the circuit. You can stop and buy some extraordinary food in one place and see an amazing art installation. A lot of the farmers do farm forums. There’s one artist who sort of turned all his bales of hay into bumblebees. There’s another artist who created a Maize Maze; he took his cornfield and turned it into a human-sized maze. So that’s really interesting, where the county is really thinking about arts and cultures’ role in tourism with an eye toward economic development. Ajo, Arizona, another of the communities I mentioned, is a very rural former mining community on the very southern border of Arizona, and they talk about themselves as a tri-national organization because they are both at the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and they are also on the border of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is a native nation that is located right there. They took a former public school, a huge public school, that was at the center of the town square, that had been abandoned. And they’ve actually retrofitted it as artists’ live-work space. So they’re inviting artists, many of whom love the desert, love the light, all of that, to come and make their homes in Ajo, because they have affordable rent, the space to create their art, and they have a community of like-minded people with them. I might also point to Eastport, Maine, and the work that Quoddy Tides Museum is doing [profiled in the book Our Towns by Deborah and James Fallows]. So those are three; Sauk County, Wisconsin; Ajo, Arizona; and Eastport, Maine.