How the Arts Benefit Rural America

By Andi Mathis

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Four silos designed with drawings and lit up in different lights from the inside.

In rural Wisconsin, Wormfarm Institute's Farm/Art DTour—a self-guided tour through more than 50 miles of Sauk County—features art installations highlighting the region's farmland and creativity, including these corn cribs by Brenda Baker. Photo by E. Baillies

The National Governors Association (NGA) recently released Rural Prosperity through the Arts and Creative Sector: A Rural Action Guide for Governors and States, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Why is this report important? Maybe because arts-based economic development has been shown to be responsible for more than 600,000 jobs and $67.5 billion in economic activity in rural communities!

The report synthesizes a growing body of research showing how the creative economy can help rural communities thrive. Rural communities exist in every state, so it is of great interest to governors who are seeking new ways to help their rural communities tackle high unemployment rates, manufacturing declines, and outmigration. As the subtitle suggests, this is an action guide for governors—or anyone interested in rural arts development—to find ideas for transforming their communities through the arts, with specific success stories provided (many of which have been or are being supported by the National Endowment for the Arts).

The action guide suggests how rural regions that lose their traditional industries might capitalize on their creative assets to reimagine and realize a new future. The arts and creative industries are well-suited to help advance comprehensive rural development efforts because they complement other industries and can boost the effectiveness of state economic development policies, partnerships, and plans.

Informed by quantitative data, an extensive scan of field practices, and insights from a national panel of rural development experts, the action guide offers a five-point policy framework with 27 corresponding action steps, and includes examples of successful arts-based strategies employed in diverse geographic settings. More resources are available on a companion website that includes compelling video testimonials, data, and rural research. Utah Governor Gary Herbert introduces the guide and explains the strategies his administration is using to lift rural communities through the arts, pointing proudly to the renaissance in the community of Green River, which has been achieved in part by arts organizations like Epicenter, an NEA Our Town grantee. From Colorado Creative Industries Executive Director Margaret Hunt, we learn that the arts are part of a proven economic development strategy in Colorado, designed to catalyze new growth and bring young people back to communities. In Colorado, affordable live/work space for artists and the advancement of cultural districts are key to these efforts. To buttress her point, Hunt uses data from the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and National Endowment for the Arts.

As NEA Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter noted, “From Appalachian coal communities to our agricultural heartland to the Mountain West, the examples in this action guide reveal how the arts and culture are central to rural vitality.” You can follow the hashtag #ruralarts on social media to continue this important conversation. We’d love to hear about your rural arts efforts and hope that you’ll join in.