MORRIS, MINN. — With all this talk about how to bridge big divides — between red and blue, rural and urban — could the answer be art?
Rural poets and painters, actors and activists gathered in the middle of the Minnesota prairie this month to say "yes."
About 400 attendees at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit grappled with how the arts might connect people across cultural and political chasms during a three-day conference put on by Springboard for the Arts and the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris. In panels, poems and performances, artists expressed optimism.
But also urgency.
"For so many generations, the role of culture bearer was enough," said Hugh Weber, founder of OTA, an organization that hosts events and conversations with creative people in "the 'ota states": South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. "And I think we've transitioned over the last decade — but certainly over the last six months — into the role being as much cultural translator as it is culture bearer."
During a panel, Weber described growing up in "a very conservative rural context" in Milbank, S.D., before leaving to attend Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and later returning to South Dakota. After the November election, he received dozens of e-mails from college classmates that all said a version of the same thing:
"We know you love us, and we know you've chosen to move back to the rural Midwest, so you must love them," said Weber, who also hosts a podcast called the Potluck Society. "Help us understand. Help us begin to build context for humanity."
Conversations across the divides
Artists who live in rural areas have a key role, many said, in creating conversations across the so-called divides. In showing how artists can boost small cities to build culturally rich places. In demonstrating why the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, has earned bipartisan support over the decades. Despite President Donald Trump's proposals to eliminate funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, Congress in May voted to increase funding slightly for both.
"I worry that the right has been told … that art is something just for the elite, just for the avant-garde," said poet Athena Kildegaard, a lecturer at the Morris campus. "People doing weird stuff, superliberals trying to shove their ideas down their throats.
"That is a very narrow idea about art."
Before the conference's start, Kildegaard, who lives near Morris in "prairie pothole country," asked attendees to write a letter to a stranger.
"There's been so much conversation about the divide between Democrats and Republicans" and among other disparate groups, she said in an interview. "The gulf has gotten so big that we just don't know each other."
So Kildegaard cooked up an activity: write a letter to someone on the other side. Then, she stole snippets and themes from those letters to form a poem. The project's structure was based on a family tradition: At Thanksgiving, relatives would write what they were thankful for and Kildegaard and her father would use them to shape a prayer-like poem to read before dinner at their home in St. Peter. The project's inspiration came from her belief that people are not learning how to tell their own stories.
"We're not very practiced at talking about what our own values and stories are," she said. "Even though we're living in this crazy social media world — speaking in 140-character tweets doesn't leave very much space."
Early one morning, Kildegaard took the letters she received from the artists and advocates and created a poem. She read it before a packed auditorium on the Morris campus on the conference's final day. "Dear stranger, dear yin to my yang, dear friend," she began. "I stare at you with curiosity and fear; you stare at me with curiosity and fear."
Art starts conversations, the poem continues. It breaks the ice. It crosses divides. The piece ends: "With art, stranger, yin to my yang, friend: we can negotiate, transcend, escape, and celebrate this world."
'We can save the world'
Of course, the conference was about much more than the urban-rural divide — or, as some participants preferred, "the urban-rural continuum."
It also highlighted cool projects: visits to "modest museums" in small towns, a play that is breaking the silence around suicide, an artist's trip across the country in a little yellow bus. Some sessions explored walking as a creative practice, the tensions between preserving a tradition and pushing it forward. Folks discussed how to assign value to the artists within a community, how to get the attention of an elected official, what the word "rural" even means.
"I struggle with 'rural.' … It implies to me distance, a lack of population, a lack of possibility," Weber said, using this language instead: "these big sky, small town, wonderful places."
Because it was an arts conference, one of the most interesting discussions took place within a performance — on a field near campus.
During "A Steady and Irresistible Wind," performers and audience members flew kites in the gardens of the West Central Research and Outreach Center. Singers led the audience through the gardens with music, occasionally turning toward the crowd to offer a haunting melody, before again moving along the garden's paths. They then reached an open field.
There, Thomas LaBlanc, a Dakota poet, delivered a kind of sermon before a row of singers who held messages in block letters on blue kites in front of them. "Trees live like we live," Le Blanc said, his voice deep and rough. "Just because they don't have a cellphone doesn't mean they're not alive."
People need to realize that they're connected with the trees and water, and with each other, he said, as a musician softly played banjo, moving among the crowd.
"Listen to them. They're talking to us," LaBlanc said. "Help us, love us, keep us healthy.
"Can't you hear them? They're in the wind. And the wind's in you."
Singers set down their kites on the grass. "Listen," one said beside two others: "Voices." "Fade."
The piece, like the conference, ended with optimism. "We can save this world," LeBlanc said. "Don't let nobody tell you you can't."
'What do we have in common?'
Back on campus, speakers pointed to past successes in Minnesota as evidence of art's power.
Minnesota's passage of the Legacy Amendment in 2008 — dedicating sales tax money to the arts, environment, hunting and recreational causes — is proof that people can find common ground to create something great, said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.
In crafting and passing the amendment, the state's arts supporters figured out how to work with environmental and outdoors advocates, she pointed out, as well as the National Rifle Association.
"Well, what do we have in common?" Smith said during a morning panel on rural arts policy and advocacy. "One [thing] was that we were all fierce Minnesota partisans. We think Minnesota is the best place to live in the whole country — don't tell me anything else. … Rah!"
After establishing that shared pride, the conversations deepened, she continued. All groups had "the same desire, which was to pass on the best of these things to the next generation," Smith said. "Once we figured that out, we were good to go."
Today, Minnesota is "the strongest place in America in terms of public arts funding," Smith said. The state spends more public money per capita on the arts than any other, according to a ranking by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. "And how did that happen?" she said. "That happened in a coalition.
"We're in constant danger of forgetting that lesson — that we got to where we are now because we worked together."