An Appetite for Art in Small Town Minnesota

February 27, 2017

By: Amy Evans

In rapidly diversifying rural Minnesota, an ArtPlace grant is seen as a resource for celebrating cultures and creating bridges between them.

Vickie Benson at the McKnight Foundation has heard it all: that the arts are elitist, a luxurious indulgence available to only a privileged few, or even a nice treat but never important enough to be the main course. These misconceptions sometimes have seemed to her to overshadow the work that artists do and the potential of that work to bring people together and support the growth of healthy communities.

And that potential is big. “Minnesota has a rich and vibrant artistic eco-system,” says Benson, “and at McKnight, we believe it wouldn’t be as rich if we didn’t have skilled people working on their craft, whatever their artistic expression. When those individuals . . . [are] supported, then not only does the art form benefit, but people around them benefit, communities benefit.”

But something’s starting to shift, and Benson can barely contain her excitement. More and more, it seems that arts and culture are being perceived as essential to the core fabric of what builds and nourishes communities—and that gives Benson enormous hope. ArtPlace America, a decade-old collaboration of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions, has been one of the driving forces for that shift, Benson says, by insisting that the arts must be in conversation with other sectors, whether community development, housing, or health.

In Minnesota, the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) has joined that conversation. With the support of a community development investment grant from ArtPlace America, which will provide $3 million in funding over three years, SWMHP is exploring ways of building arts and culture into its operations. It’s a bold step for the organization, and one that Benson wholeheartedly applauds. “Music, dance, or visual art are forms of expression within many cultures. And just the weaving together of these many, many varied cultural traditions is a natural path for people to communicate with each other,” says Benson. “That is what I hope to see, that communities will understand the importance of arts and culture not as an add-on but as a core piece of community development.”

Defining Success: St. James

Joe McCabe, city manager of St. James, held his breath when one of the local high school teachers told him she was worried. “We’re not promoting the artists in our school system throughout the community the way we should,” the teacher said. The art class was about 90 percent Latino and the paintings and sketches they were producing were “phenomenal—not just fantastic, but phenomenal. How can we share that with the community?”

Later that same day, McCabe got a call. His city was invited to participate in the CDI program.

“We held a community connection festival to get some input from the community,” recalls McCabe. “We held it in the lunchroom at the high school because it was air conditioned.” Eighty St. James residents, white and Latino, turned up for the event. They were asked what they loved about their home, what amenities they liked best, and what programs and businesses they wanted to see. Respondents mentioned what McCabe describes as “typical things for a small town”: a clothing store; a shoe shop; more restaurants; and better transportation solutions, services that can have a huge impact on rural life. Some simply said they would like to get to know their neighbors better. St. James still suffers from what Minnesota journalist Dave Peters refers to as “parallel play”: Latino and white residents “existing side by side but often not forming significant bridges or connections.” This disconnect was another issue respondents flagged — on that art, McCabe thinks, could help bridge. “If there’s a mural up in our downtown area, people are going to be commenting and talking about it,” McCabe says. “It’s another way to have people come into the community and talk about something besides the weather and the price of corn.”

St. James already has a track record in effectively leveraging the arts with regard to education. In the 2014-2015 school year, Northside Elementary School participated in Turnaround Arts, a federal program that brings arts education to underfunded schools in high-poverty areas. The program provides resources to participating schools, including funding, materials, and teaching artists, to expose students to the arts and train teachers in using artistic practice to improve literacy and foster greater student engagement. “That was one of the things that got us excited about St. James,” says Graphenteen. “Turnaround Arts was about making that change, improving scores.”

But there’s still some distance to go in convincing the local community that the arts is a worthwhile investment. In November 2015, a referendum approving $24 million for improvements to the school district finally passed after six failed attempts dating back to 2001. Graphenteen can’t help but wonder whether dropping a few items from the construction plans—namely a 500-seat auditorium and new band and choir rooms—helped win over voters. “The committee did substantial community outreach to develop a plan that the community would support; unfortunately, we see all too often that art and cultural improvements lose out” to things like athletics, Graphenteen says.

But Graphenteen is far from discouraged. Taking up the challenge of the CDI initiative, she hopes, will reassure the community of what the arts can do.

“A big part of this work is measuring the opportunities it provides for social change, which will vary in each community,” says Graphenteen. “The art and cultural strategies we undertake may look to reduce achievement gaps in communities of color and create healthier families. It can increase downtown revenue spent in that community instead of a metro center an hour away. How are we going to measure that change? How are we defining success for ourselves and our communities?”

 The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership is one of six organizations selected to receive multiyear grants from ArtPlace America through the Community Development Investments (CDI) program. Look out for more of the amazing work that SWMH is doing locally in future blog posts.

The CDI program was geared to organizations that have not previously used arts and culture strategies in their community development work to help them integrate new tools and approaches and build new partnerships.

*This is an edited exceprt shared with permission from Shelterforce, a community development magazine. This article appeared in their arts & culture issue, Winter 2016-2017. It can be viewed in fulIt can be viewed in full here.