Dynamic Assets in Rural Communities

Vickie Benson

Imagine throwing an arts event and the entire community shows up. This is oftentimes what takes place in the towns delightfully portrayed in Bright Stars, a publication from the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Neal Cuthbert's foreword to this award-winning piece, it is underscored that rural communities in Minnesota are suffering in several ways due to listless econo-mies and dramatically shifting demographics. However, in the eight towns presented in Bright Stars: Charting the Impact of the Arts in Rural Minnesota — towns whose populations range from 463 to 13,000 — artists and other creative citizens have remade their communities to be vital and thriving. Cuthbert, arts program director at McKnight, is careful to point out that the arts alone can't do it, but artists and the arts are definitely “dynamic assets” along with true citizen engagement.

Bright Stars divides the stories of its towns into four chapters focusing on innovative strategies — Creating Opportunities for En-gagement, Developing Leaders for the Journey, Shaping Community Identity, and the New Rural Arts Economy. Under Developing Leaders for the Journey, the reader learns about New York Mills, population 1,175 and 170 miles north of Minneapolis. Visual artist and sculptor John Davis moved to this agricultural town in the late 1980s and found that many of the farmers and other residents wanted art galleries and theater and dance. Bright Stars tells the story of Davis first bringing in one resident artist at a time, then building an arts center in a renovated storefront adding more and more artists and events. It also describes the creation of a sculpture park to entice people driving on the highway to pull off and visit New York Mills, buy some art, and maybe have a stay in the bed and breakfasts there. New York Mills frequently makes national lists of the top small towns for arts in this country. The authors state, “...in the clearest sign of the value the community now places on the arts, the town's water tower has the arts center's logo painted on its east side...”

Bright Stars is broader than rural Minnesota. Its conclusion, “A Road Map for the Arts” provides ideas for engagement that every rural community could use. Its closing gives the following charge, “Every contribution the arts make to a rural community must above all be personal and meaningful to its citizenry.” Through this and other publications and its philanthropic work, The McKnight Foundation models the same ideal; it is personal and meaningful to its citizenry. At the May 2006 Council on Founda-tions Conference in Pittsburgh, Cuthbert accepted the Wilmer Shields Rich Award for Bright Stars on behalf The McKnight Founda-tion. Sponsored by the Council on Foundations, the award recognizes effective communications efforts that increase public aware-ness of foundations and corporate giving programs.

Recently, I received a phone call from a woman investigating Jerome Foundation's art funding priorities in Minnesota. She told me her name and then said she was from Bigfork. I could tell that she was ready with her scripted description of where and what this place was. I interrupted her immediately and said, “I know all about Bigfork because I've just read Bright Stars. Her response was, “Oh, thank you, thank you, McKnight.”

The authors of Bright Stars are Carlo M. Cuesta, Dana M. Gillespie, and Padraic Lillis. Neal Cuthbert wrote the foreword. Published in 2005, Bright Stars is available from the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, MN, 612-333-4220, www.mcknight.org.

Vickie Benson is vice president, Jerome Foundation