GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – In a classroom inside a defunct, historic elementary school, a few dozen "students" peppered the morning's teachers — three arts leaders — with questions. For two days, attendees of the Rural Arts and Culture Summit had seen firsthand how this northern Minnesota city incorporated the arts into its city government and its public spaces.

How, exactly, did that happen? Could they do it, too?

"It took six years. It didn't happen overnight," said Ed Zabinski, who was on the Grand Rapids City Council when it created an Arts and Culture Commission. "If you're watching from a distance, it's like watching paint dry. It's painful. But it is important, because in the process they made sure the people who had negative things to say had that opportunity.

"They checked all the boxes, touched all the bases."

In early October, about 350 people from 25 states gathered in this Mississippi River city of about 11,000 to talk about how the arts can boost small communities. Hosting the three-day, multivenue conference gave the city, better known for its paper mill, the chance to share its successes and struggles in the arts. It honored the old — KAXE, the longest-running rural public radio station in the country. It showed off the new — a handful of public art pieces scattered across the city.

In past years, Springboard for the Arts hosted this biennial conference on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Morris. But Springboard, a nonprofit that connects artists and communities, wanted to see what the event could look and feel like in a new spot, said Michele Anderson, the organization's rural program director.

Grand Rapids, with its state-of-the-art performance venue and its downtown art gallery, its high-profile indigenous arts community and its new city commission, seemed like an ideal spot, she said. The city is also honest about the area's challenges, including an economy historically dependent on mining and forestry.

"The transitions the region is facing are really significant," Anderson said. "They're showing how to look those challenges right in the face."

Sculptures sprouting

On a new pedestrian bridge spanning the Mississippi, flat, colorful fungi sprout.

Artist Nicole Camene affixed the final mushroom, sculpted with wood, cardboard and yarn, to the slender railing just as a tour group of conference attendees approached.

"Public-space art is kind of like my passion, where I feel most connected to people and place," Camene said.

The Minneapolis artist attended a workshop in Grand Rapids, learning about grants they were offering to create public art projects. Camene had been reading about the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi. After digging into the Blandin Paper Co.'s efforts around sustainability, she thought mushrooms might make an apt metaphor for balancing consumption and protection of the area's resources.

"It's complicated," she said. "We need toilet paper and things to write on. But at the same time, we can try to find a balance."

The temporary fungi join four new permanent sculptures that have popped up in Grand Rapids this year. There are two new murals, too, and two pieces of sidewalk poetry.

The flurry of public art is rooted in the work of the Arts and Culture Commission, formed in 2013. The group drew up a plan for arts in the city. It launched an artist residency program, offering makers studio space in the Old Central School downtown. It persuaded the City Council to earmark 1.5% of funding for public-works projects for public art.

They knew little about how to pick and place public art, said Sonja Merrild, the commission's chairwoman and director of grants for the Blandin Foundation, which plays a key role in community development here.

"We were in over our heads," she said. A small group photographed a building where they thought a mural might look nice, a street corner where a sculpture might work. "This is where we think art would look pretty," as she put it. Then they hired Forecast Public Art, a St. Paul nonprofit, to help create a process for selecting, paying for and placing artworks, Merrild said. "They make the process really defensible."

Summit attendees seemed to appreciate the city leaders' honesty, Merrild said later. Plus, "because Grand Rapids is pretty far up here in the woods, I sensed some surprise that we could have an arts community that was as significant, frankly, as it is."

'It is who we are'

The summit dug into plenty of numbers. The economic impact of the arts, the return on investment. But it started with ceremony.

On Friday morning, Gary Charwood of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe said a blessing and lit some sage, inviting the hundreds of people gathered in the Reif Performing Arts Center to "feel free to come and smudge if you choose to."

They did, waving the smoke toward their faces and over their heads. Light, sweet smoke filled the auditorium.

During the opening plenary, the speakers introduced themselves by describing the sights and sounds that reminded them of home. Musician Annie Humphrey described a scent. Growing up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation just west of Grand Rapids, "all I wanted to do was leave," she said. But while in the Marine Corps, stationed in Japan, she received a package from her father, a man unlikely to write letters, much less send packages. "I opened the box up," Humphrey said, "and I saw what it was and I walked away to be by myself."

Inside the little cardboard box was wild rice. She stuck her face inside and breathed.

"Nothing smells like wild rice," she said. It made her realize that "I can't live anywhere else."

Humphrey, one of many Native American artists onstage at this year's summit, spoke plainly about the racism she's experienced in Grand Rapids. The coolness she encountered at the store. The rude comments her niece heard at a coffee shop where she worked.

"The feeling and the energy in this town is quite strange," Humphrey said. "I'm not sure what can be done about it. It's a huge problem. Where do you start?"

Other panelists shared similar struggles. In Duluth, considered an artsy town, the work of indigenous artists has been invisible, said Moira Villiard, arts and cultural program coordinator for the American Indian Community Housing Organization

But that's changing. She pointed to the massive red mural downtown of an Ojibwe jingle dress dancer and water protector, a bandanna covering her face, completed in 2017. It is "one of the only depictions of persons of color by a person of color," said Villiard, who recently received a grant from Forecast Public Art to design four community street murals.

Villiard cautioned arts advocates to consider the language they use around arts-making in small towns. Specifically, "creative place-making," a buzzword in this crowd.

"Place-making — as if a place isn't already something," Villiard said. People shouldn't be "creating a new history when you haven't addressed the history that's already there.

"If you don't think there's a story of the place, you're wrong."

Packing the gallery

On Friday evening, attendees milled around downtown Grand Rapids for First Friday, a monthly event marked by arts and food trucks.

The air was chilly, but people watched as a stocking-capped painter captured the stately Old Central School on his canvas. They ducked into shops where artists displayed their wares. They packed the MacRostie Art Center, sipping wine, perusing jewelry and checking out "Beyond Borders," an exhibit by Native American artists.

Many lingered before a pair of red paintings. In one, titled "For My Sisters," an Ojibwe jingle dancer raises a feather fan and a protective arm. Behind her, red shadows appear — an army of women, dancing in formation.

Artist Hillary Kempenich of Grand Forks, N.D., doesn't usually depict her Native subjects in traditional regalia. "I try to show us in our modern form," she said. "But for this, there's a story that needed to be told about uplifting women." The jingle dress dancers have been called forward to work on the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women, she said. "We can heal ourselves — heal the world, as well."

Kempenich, who's from the Turtle Mountain reservation, came to the conference hoping to find direction in how to help Grand Forks build a "better, sustainable arts community."

"We don't have spaces like this," she said, gesturing at the gallery. The North Dakota Museum of Art is "bringing art into the space from around the world, which is super-important. But we also need to be supporting the artists and creating a creative economy in Grand Forks.

"So what's happening in Minnesota has been really inspiring."