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."

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."

Pioneering tradition

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