The 2013 Rural Arts and Culture Summit, held on the campus of the University of Minnesota Morris, is now a memory. We had a great time, met some truly fantastic people committed to creating bold new initiatives in their communities, and came away with plenty of energy and ideas … but more about all that later. First, here’s a recap of day two of the conference to compliment yesterday’s collection of notes from day one.
Michael Strand. Our morning keynote came from artist, NDSU art department head, and TAP board member Michael Strand (above). Strand’s work is well known here in the FM-WF area, but his talk on his social practice approach and innovative projects was a delight even to us. Through projects like the Misfit Cup Liberation Project, the Fargo Sandbag Project, Cuplomacy, and Bowls Around Town, Strand sets an ambitious benchmark for participatory and social practice work. His keys to making this happen? Working on the edge of what’s appropriate, thinking about how art can be plugged into systems of activity, and a consideration of ways to embed new meaning in an object by gifting it to someone or asking someone to use an object before passing it along to someone else. Strand also credited (cheekily) his fictional schools of thought, the Seinfeld School of Art (which seeks to explode small collective truths to their logical extent) and the Global Institute for Strategic Inefficiency, whose motto is “We Haven’t Done Anything Yet.” We here at TAP are fortunate enough to have a personal connection to Strand and his work, and we’re thrilled to see him as an ambassador for our community.
Creative placemaking with Laura Zabel and Jun-Li Wang. Laura Zabel and Jun-Li Wang of RACS host Springboard for the Arts gave a concise refresher on the concept of creative placemaking through the projects they’ve spearheaded, most of them small, ground-level attempts at neighborhood and community improvement. Although most of their work has occurred in non-rural centers, many of the concepts they value are easily translatable: working together to change overlooked and undervalued shared spaces, investing in social capital and the opportunities present in a community, and creating a physical context that allows people to come together for their mutual benefit. Zabel said the arts give place-based organizations (like neighborhood groups) a new and exciting tool to work with, and the simple act of placing a small piece of public art and signal the love and care we have for a place or an area. Some other good takeaways from Zabel and Wang’s session include working with funders in community and economic development, issuing invitations and giving people a common cause, and finding “rogue bureaucrats” at all levels of government to enable unorthodox projects.
Cooperative extension services, land-grant universities, and rural community development. University of Oregon Master’s candidates Savanna Barret and Lyle Murphy really opened our eyes. Murphy discussed a program he spearheaded that works within a rural Oregon prison system teaching inmates to crochet. Their work is given out to the community and has improved inmate health while changing the external and internal perception of life as an inmate. Barret researched community extension services (set up as part of the land-grant university system as a way to form networks that seek to improve rural communities) in Kentucky and Wisconsin to find models for bringing cultural opportunity and economic development to small towns. To that last notion, our thoughts instantly fell on the NDSU Extension Service, who should probably expect a phone call and meeting request from us in the very near future.
All rural communities have the capacity to create new economic opportunity through the arts. No matter its size, whether it be a small town or urban neighborhood, any community has the capability to improve its infrastructure, beautify itself, and find ways to draw in economic opportunity through creative placemaking. And, when it involves the people of that community in as close a proximity to themselves as possible, it can’t really fail. Simply, it comes down to a community investing in itself, and that’s a no-brainer. The challenge is finding the right pathways to that success, but based on what we learned at RACS, we know that the right people are already in these communities to navigate those challenges.
Rural communities are national models for sustainability and livability, and creative placemaking can help the entire country grapple with new challenges. We’re taught that rural America is a place without, a place that hasn’t yet reached the point of the shining city on the hill, a place for nostalgia and the past. But that’s not the case. Rural communities are teeming with opportunity as the cities look outward for answers to challenges that come along with growth and density. Rural America has its own challenges, but a shared solution can come from good creative placemaking and future-forward thinking. As people in small towns begin to invite conversations and tackle tough issues through creativity, they can initiate discourse across multiple levels and have even more to offer to national issues of access, economic development, community improvement, and sustainability.
We have a lot of work to do. We charted a bold course at RACS, one that involves no shortage of meetings with people outside our comfort zones, plenty of selling to our boards and city councils, strategic planning, grant writing … basically, a lot of rolled-up sleeves. But we were also given a plain and sure track record of recent success. We learned that artists and creatively inspired people can demonstrate community improvement at nearly every scale and using any metric, from the anecdote to a mountain of data. We learned that we can ignite curiosity, forge identity, and find meaning as well as any business, government, group, or individual … but only by using our strengths to bring business, government, groups, and individuals together behind a common purpose. The way forward might be imposing, exhausting, and intimidating, but we’re all aware that we’re in it together. And again, what we do together can’t really fail.
And, just to make a long post even longer, here’s a Storify snapshot of social media activity from RACS: