A Gathering and A Weaving: A View from the Rural Arts & Culture Summit

Matthew Fluharty (left) with Michael Strand at the June 2013 Rural Arts and Culture Summit. Photo by Michele Anderson

Matthew Fluharty (left) with Michael Strand at the June 2013 Rural Arts and Culture Summit. Photo by Michele Anderson

Matthew Fluharty (left) with Michael Strand at the June 2013 Rural Arts and Culture Summit. Photo by Michele Anderson

Hosted by the University of Minnesota, Morris' Center for Small Towns and Minneapolis's Springboard for the Arts, the Rural Arts and Culture Summit took place June 5 and 6. The event attracted more than 300 community development leaders, artists, and advocates to the prairie of West Central Minnesota. The summit’s theme was Leveraging Arts and Culture to Build Thriving Communities; topics included arts-based community development; network weaving and cross-sector partnerships; and rural identity and sense of place, among others.

Often when we talk about the interconnectedness of the arts, culture, and economy, we invoke the metaphor of an ecosystem. Certainly, in our collective moment of environmental consciousness, we understand an ecosystem not only as an abstract and connective network, but also a system of existence under constant threat, a gorgeous and complex design that we can only understand (and protect) by acting responsibly within it. Like many folks, I’ve used the word often; after my time at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit, I realize that I’ve used the word perhaps too freely, as that more complex rendering of the word’s potential has been in action, and around us, every day in rural communities.

The Rural Arts and Culture Summit was as much a gathering and a 'weaving,' to use June Holley’s sense of the word, as it was a "conference." For an event with the most engaging and downright moving keynote speeches I have ever encountered, and with a series of breakouts hosted by national leaders in their fields, it was impressive how those moments of unofficial time were equally charged. Rural artists and practitioners often travel great distances---across well-documented gaps in equity and access---to come together. When the geographical mileage was bridged for a few days in Morris, it was amazing what happened. Folks were sharing their experiences, news from those local ecosystems, and also talking about that larger concept of “the rural arts” itself: what does that ecosystem need to thrive? From rural to urban, where can relationships be built to insure the responsible cultivation of rural arts and culture?

Throughout the summit, I was struck by the degree to which cross-sector and interdisciplinary partnerships---so central to the conversations on design and placemaking that the Citizen's Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) and the NEA's Our Town program have sparked---not only animated the event, but also created challenging and unexpected new connections. This was no doubt due in part to the vision of conference organizer Michele Anderson and her colleagues at Springboard for the Arts, and their belief in art’s (and artists’) unique abilities to guide the practice of community engagement. In addition, the Center for Small Towns provided a powerful example of how a university partner can engage in long-term dialogue that merges policy considerations with grounded practice, and real conversation in rural communities.

Beyond our sessions, we moved out of conference rooms into active spaces---a farmers’ and artists’ market, a dinner and bluegrass jam in the university’s Horticulture Gardens, an opening night reception for the extraordinary Rural American Contemporary Artists group exhibition. At each turn, the abstract concept of the arts and culture ecosystem was met with tangible evidence of its richly various nature.

For instance, between sessions, it was not unusual to have a conversation with someone like Scott Tedrick, a Granite Falls, Minnesota-based journalist interested in building networks for rural newspapers. Only after we had talked through issues of digital media and storytelling would I learn that Scott is also a lead actor in a series of community-created plays that integrate the life of the Minnesota River with the community of Granite Falls. Scott has portrayed historical figures, led audiences for these interactive pieces up the river in canoes, and, in general, helped both local and regional audiences reimagine their connections to place. As part of the collaboration between Clean up the River Environment and PlaceBase Productions, the local community now has a suite of scripts, as well as educational and multimedia materials, that offer possibilities for further community events.

Upon reflection, such encounters take me back to one of the elements of creative problem-solving that John Davis wove into his keynote on arts and design in rural communities: “What’s more powerful than a vision? A shared vision.” In this respect, there is beautiful symmetry in reflecting on the Rural Arts and Culture Summit as news of the 2013 CIRD workshops are announced.

John also encouraged attendees to think about how to “redefine risk as an investment in your community,” and the notion of the workshop itself approaches that sense---folks from across sectors and [skill sets] gathering together and admitting the possibility of failure and miscommunication as the necessary precondition toward a new, shared vision of a deeply important place.

Perhaps like many other summit attendees, the art and ideas of disciplinary boundary-crosser Michael Strand are still resonating with me. His pottery projects, which merge everything from art history to contemporary social practice to neighborliness and community, are examples of how---with little monetary investment or infrastructure---all of us can go about the work of enacting art as what he would call a “benevolent disruption” in our communities. In that final respect, the summit undoubtedly served that role---to "defamiliarize" us from easy answers---and to invite us into a space where we can better see how our engagement with arts, design, and culture, in the words of James Baldwin, helps “lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”

Did you know that the NEA supports design in rural areas? Today we announced the 2013 class of the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design. The rural companion to the Mayors' Institute on City Design, CIRD brings art and design experts and resources to communities to help them build upon their existing assets to improve the design, quality of life, and economic vitality of their towns. Four small towns or rural regions are chosen to host a two-and-a-half day community design workshop.

The 2013 CIRD grantees are: Central Appalachia Institute for Research and Development, Inc., Rochester Regional Community Design Center, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Suwannee County Extension, and City of Seguin, Texas. Visit our News Room to learn more.