Can the Arts Help Save Rural America?

Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll performing at the 2016 Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. Some small towns are looking to the arts as a way of attracting money and people.

© Tony Demin

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Ten years ago, Sarah Calhoun became a 21st century pioneer, staking a claim in a town far from her Connecticut roots: White Sulphur Springs, Montana, population 939, located in what was then the poorest county in the nation.

The logging industry had dried up in the mountain town, but Calhoun saw potential. So she launched Red Ants Pants, manufacturing work wear for women. She started an online business and opened a brick and mortar store, and then a music festival with big-name talent like Lyle Lovett and Wynonna Judd.

The festival brought thousands of music fans to White Sulphur Springs and generated money to help finance rural enterprises. Today, the once ramshackle downtown has been revitalized as other businesses have popped up. Which is why Calhoun was at a conference in Iowa City last week, standing before a crowd of other rural denizens, business leaders, artists and policymakers, preaching about the role the arts can play in bringing timeworn towns back to life.

“I want to make rural America sexy again,” Calhoun said. And the arts, she said, are a way to help do just that.

As post-recession, rural America continues to struggle, some rural leaders, using private and public funding, are experimenting with the arts as a tool to fuel economic and community development like they did for White Sulfur Springs.

The National Endowment for the Arts is helping by giving $125,000 in seed money to fund a “Next Generation” initiative to help build arts hubs in rural America. The idea is to connect artists, arts groups, civic leaders and philanthropists and encourage them to create sustainable cultural scenes in rural communities to help spur economic development and entice new, young residents. Iowa, Kentucky and Minnesota participated this year. Other states seek to join next year.

“You need arts in rural America so that the next generation wants to come there and live,” said Charles Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, a public policy institute located at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

“If you do not build vibrant, inclusive, diverse places for young people, they’re not going to raise their families there. They’re simply not. And those communities will wither away,” Fluharty said.

Around the nation, arts are helping a handful of rural communities make a go of it. Marfa, a remote desert town in Texas with a population of 1,765, has become an international arts mecca among fashionistas. Every summer for the last 45 years, 12,000 people swarm Winfield, Kansas, pitching their tents at the town’s annual bluegrass music festival and temporarily doubling the city’s population.

Business leaders and city administrators say it’s almost impossible to pin a dollar figure on the amount of revenue arts and entertainment can bring to a rural community. In 2013, arts and cultural production contributed $704 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 4.7 million jobs.

Community leaders say the arts can foster community pride and create jobs, even on a modest scale. To be successful, they say, a rural community must figure out what makes it unique — a gorgeous natural landscape that can serve as the backdrop for a writers’ retreat, an old opera house, or a tradition of local storytelling — and capitalize on that.

“People say, ‘I’m going to Winfield.’ They don’t say, ‘I’m going to the Walnut Valley Festival.’ The festival is giving us this name recognition. You could never pay for that type of recognition,” said Warren Porter, Winfield’s city manager.

Tourists flock to Lanesboro, Minnesota, population 754, a historic town known for its Victorian architecture and scenic river bikeway, to take in theater, art galleries, museums, film festivals and live music. Smithsonian magazine named it one of its “20 Best Small Towns to Visit.” (Minnesota has an arts and heritage fund paid for with revenue from state sales taxes.)

There, the entire town was declared an arts campus two years ago. And with $1.3 million in local, state and federal funding, the town has been renovating facilities, helping artists relocate there and developing an artist residency center, said John Davis, executive director of Lanesboro Arts, a coordinating organization. In the meantime, 10 businesses have opened in town.

Owensboro, a small city in western Kentucky located on the Ohio River, has invested $260 million of public and private money to revamp its downtown riverfront and convention center and build a new building for its International Bluegrass Music Museum.

The city was known for its museum, which opened in 1991 and “set the tone for creating a brand for arts and culture,” said Joe Berry, vice president of entrepreneurship for the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation. The town also has a symphony and a pre-professional ballet company.

“We’ve watched our state government send money to everywhere but Owensboro,” Berry said. “We decided we’re not going to wait for our state government to help us. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to do it ourselves.”

Remaking Small Town America

At the “Next Generation” summit in Iowa City, artists and policy wonks from 35 states crammed in conference rooms to talk strategy, breaking every now and then to take in a performance from a storyteller or folk singer.

They toss around the term “creative placemaking,” an earnest shorthand for building economically viable arts hubs.

The bit of jargon belies the urgency that many rural communities face, said Bob Reeder, program director of Rural LISC (the rural component of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works with rural communities to stimulate economic development.

In nearly half of the country’s rural counties, more people have moved out than have moved in during every decade since the 1950s. Many rural communities are blighted, with vacant buildings and crumbling infrastructure. Rural unemployment has eased up since the recession, but creating jobs remains a challenge.

“There are many rural communities that are threatened with becoming a ghost town,” Reeder said. “Can the arts save rural America? I would never call it a panacea, but it’s another strategy that we have in our toolkit.”

Metropolitan areas receive community development block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which give them the flexibility to do long-term strategic planning.

In contrast, rural communities have to compete for funding. They can apply for a federal HUD grant. And they receive competitive grants from their governor’s office, which are typically meted out every few years. By the time that funding comes around, it usually goes to obtaining, say, a new fire truck, rather than creating an arts scene.

“That’s a massive disadvantage to community development,” Fluharty said.

Escaping the Big City

Zachary Mannheimer, a former New Yorker who moved to Iowa nine years ago, travels his adopted state consulting with small towns on how to convert their abandoned hospitals and hotels into multiuse facilities that incorporate rental housing for young professionals, restaurants and community arts centers.

The idea is to make a town attractive to young people, said Mannheimer of the Iowa Business Growth Company, a for-profit economic development group that uses federal and state loans and tax credits to fund small business startups in towns across the state.

Increasingly, Mannheimer said, young creative types are being forced out of big cities and are looking for less expensive places to live. And many people eventually tire of metropolis living and seek a less hectic existence.

A recent study by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship found that half of the young people from rural communities said that they would love to stay in their hometowns if there were real career opportunities available for them. That means small town America needs to prepare to welcome them back.

“Towns have to be prepared for 30 years from now. It’s all about figuring out what does your town have that no other town on the planet has,” Mannheimer said.

Rural communities should think small in starting to revitalize themselves, said Reeder of Rural LISC.

Trying to woo back manufacturing in today’s service-driven economy is not realistic, he said. All too often, big corporations swoop into a rural community but don’t end up hiring many locals. And they rarely stick around, he said, leaving carcasses of abandoned industrial parks.

“Don’t be trying to get a Wal-Mart,” Reeder said. For every dollar spent in these stores, 90 cents goes outside the community, he said. “For every dollar spent in a local food mart, just the opposite happens.”

‘Capital of Quirkiness’

Sometimes becoming a tourist mecca has its downside, especially if a town doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the boom. In Marfa, for example, there’s no room to grow, said James Mustard, the city administrator. The town is landlocked, bordered by ranches that have been owned by a handful of families for years.

In the 1970s, the artist Donald Judd left New York for Marfa. He bought a chunk of land, and with foundation money, populated Marfa with all kinds of art installations. CBS’s “60 Minutes” dubbed the town “the capital of quirkiness.”

Over the years, hipsters from New York and Los Angeles gobbled up the housing stock to use as second homes. As a result, appraised housing values skyrocketed, and some locals complained about a jump in their property taxes. Part-timers rented out their homes on Airbnb. Affordable housing shrank.

“We have few vacant lots,” Mustard said. “You can’t build a subdivision. You can’t build 20 new houses.”

But as Calhoun of the Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs sees it, with careful planning, a community can take advantage of tourism dollars.

The proceeds from the annual music fest go to a foundation that funds leadership programs for women, and provides grants to improve rural communities and support family farms and ranches.

Her county is no longer the poorest in the nation. White Sulphur Springs has a new Main Street, sporting goods store, brewery and bakery — and new sidewalks and streetlights. It soon will have a new school and library.

But Calhoun is not interested in seeing White Sulphur Springs become a boom town. There’s a reason why she moved to the middle of nowhere.

“Getting bigger isn’t the solution. Getting better is. If you design it for the tourists, you’re making a mistake,” said Calhoun, who represented Montana last year at the White House’s Small Business Leadership Summit. “Design it for your community. Then the others will come.” 

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