Minnesota farm country's newest crop: the arts

The state has become a national leader in using cultural activity to revitalize rural communities.


At the Dreamery Rural Arts Initiative’s performing arts camp in Wykoff, Shawn Bagley, 16, of Nicollet, practiced his violin in a field near the farm’s garden Thursday.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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Across Minnesota, small towns and farms are busy putting the culture in agriculture. Whether making colorful prints with rhubarb or turning an old creamery into a folk-arts school, they are transforming the state into a national model for using the arts to improve rural life.

Fergus Falls recently won a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to be parceled out to local artists for preservation and economy-boosting projects. Another national funder, ArtPlace America, is giving tiny Lanesboro — long known for its theater and picturesque, B&B-lined streets — $313,000 to develop a full-fledged “arts campus” throughout the town. Outside Wykoff, the Dreamery Rural Arts Initiative is hosting camps and workshops, teaching visitors of all ages how to dance, act and make music in a farm setting.

Economic developers and government agencies are taking notice.

Minnesota is “arguably the nation’s model in terms of rural philanthropy,” said Chris Beck, a senior projects adviser at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state’s unique Legacy Amendment, allotting sales-tax money for the arts, coupled with support from private foundations, “give it a leg up on every other state,” he said.

Rural leaders such as John Davis, director of the Lanesboro Arts Center, see the arts not just as a means to boost local economies, but as a reason for residents to stay.

“In a small town, your audience is everyone,” he said.

The Lanesboro campaign is an example of the latest concept gaining traction across the state — integrating the arts throughout the community rather than parking them in one building on Main Street.

It targets residents of the town of 750 — not just the cultural tourists they already attract — to participate in everyday art such as building “surprise” sculptures in unexpected places or making prints with rhubarb stalks at the farmers market.

Rural-arts developers in other Midwest states “look at Minnesota with envy,” said Michael Strand, an artist and head of visual arts at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “What I see there are a lot of projects that are relevant to residents that consider what the public needs and wants.”

A key factor in Minnesota’s success, he said, is the hyperlocal knowledge of its 11 regional arts councils, another state asset that’s rare elsewhere.

“The arts as community engagement is as old as the circus coming to town,” Strand said. “But unlike the traveling circus, if you want to have a lasting effect you can’t just helicopter in, make one thing happen and leave.”

Making a strong base stronger

Three years ago the NEA launched the “Our Town” program in part to encourage more arts-related partnerships with the far-reaching arms of federal divisions such as housing, education and agriculture.

The USDA’s Beck recently visited the state for a rural arts summit at the University of Minnesota, Morris. His agency’s role is to support these efforts by investing its resources in infrastructure, he said — citing as a hypothetical example a problem dam on the lake in Lanesboro.

“If they remove it, the lake will drain and not be there anymore, and that lake is important to the fabric of the community,” he said. “We can explore long-term financing to the local electric co-op. It’s the kind of thing that affects the town’s cultural attractions, but it’s not the kind of thing the Ford Foundation would fund.”

The Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund has had a “huge impact” on less populated parts of the state, said Maxine Adams, head of the Lakes Region Arts Council in Fergus Falls.

This year, the council was able to fund 28 projects for just over a quarter-million dollars. Even relatively small grants, like $10,000 for Battle Lake to incorporate sculpture bike racks and nature-themed mosaic benches into a MnDOT road expansion project, can make a real difference in a small town, she said. “Now there will be [images of] pretty cattails and sunflowers where there was nothing.”

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  • Larrie Underwood, a creative adviser at Flourish Summer Camp near Wykoff, Minn., helped campers with design and logistics for upcoming performances.

  • “Having art exhibitions gives the downtown more of an urban feel,” said Gretchen Boyum, curator of Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls.

  • Isabela Kuhnle, 13, of Minneapolis, practiced a vocal/piano selection for her upcoming performance at the Dreamery Rural Arts Initiative’s Flourish Summer Camp near Wykoff.

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