Putting Art in the Driver’s Seat

It is summertime in small-town America. People line main street for parades and gather in the park for antique tractor shows. Events like these make a town come alive.

We spend a lot of time at the Center for Rural Affairs discussing business development. Art and cultural development is often thought of second, after business and infrastructure are attended to. 

That is the wrong approach. 

Cultural events – the things we do together – give us a sense of identity and shape who we are as a community. 

By changing the paradigm to consider how we can make our locales come alive with public art and cultural events, we can use these strategies alongside business development to drive our communities forward. 

It is easy to get started in your community. 

In our hometown of 851 people, a group of local artists are setting up rotating art displays in downtown business windows. This small change made several main street buildings come alive. 

Is your small town teeming with opportunity for arts-based development, just waiting to be unleashed? Communities that embrace art and culture as a development strategy will attract new residents and new visitors.

Leaders include the Wormfarm Institute. Their 50 mile art detour across the rolling hills of Sauk County, Wisconsin, attracts thousands of visitors to view temporary art installations on the land. 

Epicenter, a local rural development group in Green River, Utah, started by painting window murals on vacant downtown buildings. Revitalizing a main street can be a daunting task. This simple use of art can get the ball rolling. 

Historic preservation is another important part of cultural identity. Many small towns have great historic infrastructure. Old main street buildings and brick streets help tell the story of who we are. 

Preserving this historic infrastructure for future generations is another strategy that leverages existing assets to lift up cultural development. 

At the end of the day, establishing new businesses won’t be enough to turn small towns into vibrant places. We’ll also need to encourage art and cultural development. 

You can begin today in your community. Start with a small project. Brainstorm what cultural programs would enhance the sense of place and quality of life in your community. 

And share your success stories with me. I’d love to hear from you - email briand@cfra.org.

Feature image: Members of Logan Valley Artists set up a window display in a downtown business in our hometown of Lyons, Nebraska. | Photo by Jamie Horter