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Woman in dress holding on to the side of a train.

Helen Milliken, then First Lady of Michigan, engineered Artrain’s creation in 1971 with support from the Arts Endowment. Photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

It's a museum on wheels, chugging through America bringing art to isolated pockets of the country—Artrain USA. Since 1971, it's visited more than 850 communities in 45 states and the District of Columbia, bringing a wide range of exhibitions to more than 3.2 million people. Artrain doesn't own a permanent collection but borrows artworks from museums and other institutions, so that it can change shows every two or three years.

Founded by the Michigan Council for the Arts, its original, rather modest mission was to bring the arts to isolated areas of its own state for a two-year period. The Arts Council recruited Helen Milliken, the governor's wife, to help raise the $850,000 necessary to make Artrain a reality.

"At the very start we knew we needed seed money to get it off the ground," Milliken said. So she paid a visit to Nancy Hanks, who was then chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Hanks was immediately fascinated by the project, and her advocacy helped get Artrain moving.

"It was tremendously important to have the backing of the NEA when we went to businesses and major industries asking for funding," Milliken explained. "It was the key; we couldn't have raised that kind of money without that initial boost." Milliken used her position to arrange Artrain's first national tour to eight of the Rocky Mountain states. The Arts Endowment provided a grant to cover half the trip's costs with the host states picking up the other half.

Wherever it stopped, Artrain acted as a community catalyst, encouraging the formation of local and regional arts councils, bolstering art education programs, and spurring downtown revitalization and railroad station renovations.

After retiring its train museum in 2007, Artrain is now applying its methodologies to cultural offerings of all kinds—visual and performing arts, science, history, and culture—using specially designed mobile museum units, new technologies, and updated community-building programs to reach people in Michigan, throughout the United States, and for the first time in 2012, Canada.

In 2012, Artrain helped produce CriticCar Detroit, which traveled around the city inviting citizen critics—from first-timers to experts—to provide reviews of arts and cultural events. The project was started through an NEA/Knight Foundation Community Arts Journalism Challenge grant.