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The arts also play a role in population retention and growth, said Michele Anderson, who runs the Fergus Falls outpost of St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts. The burgeoning arts scene in Fergus Falls is sparking “an under-35 creative class who are choosing to stay and buy houses here,” she said. “Throw in the lower cost of living, and it’s attractive.”
Anderson, 31, is herself an example. She moved there from Portland, Ore., two years ago. Now she’s directing the “Imagine Fergus Falls” effort.
Gretchen Boyum, 36, grew up in the area but moved to San Francisco, then returned to Fergus Falls four years ago to manage the Kaddatz Galleries. The galleries are below new artists’ lofts in an abandoned downtown hotel rehabbed by Minneapolis-based Artspace, a national leader in developing arts facilities.
Boyum and her husband, Pat Crepps, moved onto her parents’ former property and began raising pigs, chickens and vegetables. She sometimes sells eggs right out of the gallery.
“In some small towns there’s nothing to do outside of the tourist traps,” she said. “Younger people want a social life and having art exhibitions gives the downtown more of an urban feel.”
Minnesota has a history of pioneering small-town cultural renaissances.
In 1990, the McKnight Foundation helped fund an arts center in the economically depressed community of New York Mills. The town of 1,100 became known as a national template for rural arts connections, and has been home of the Great American Think-Off for the past 21 years. Now it is in a “second growth” phase, according to Jamie Robertson, director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, with the conversion of an old creamery into a folk-arts school.
“We want people to see art not as something you hang on your wall, but something that makes you human, helps you understand issues and solve problems,” Robertson said.
One of the biggest supporters of rural arts is former McKnight head Rip Rapson, who is now president of the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation and board chair of Lanesboro funder ArtPlace America. He sees the arts as important “not so much for cultural tourism — selling the place to people who don’t live there — but in helping those who do to see their community in a new light. They also lead to better community health by linking other things together: the food system, housing, youth development.”
As small-town America faces an epidemic of withering and dying off, Rapson said the arts can foster “a feeling of belonging, of identity” in isolated areas.
At the Dreamery Rural Arts Initiative outside Wykoff, neo-farmer Eva Barr knows all about creating that feeling.
She hosts barn dances, youth camps, adult retreats and weekly cultural “pizza nights,” drawing together locals — including neighbors who had lived a mile apart for 20 years, yet never met. The brick-oven pizzas are veggie only, but many meat-loving visitors tote baggies full of sausage or pepperoni to sprinkle on themselves.
“Some of the farmers I know would bristle at being called artists,” Barr said. “Art is something you hang on the wall, they’d say. But farmers are the most creative people I know, always doing the most with whatever they have.”
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046