Vibrant Small Towns and Rural Communities Embrace Art and Self-Expression

Pablo Picasso said the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. And if you look in small towns and rural places, not just here in America, but across the globe, you will find art and cultural expression in what some might call the most unlikely of places.

“Artists have contributed to shaping and influencing experiences in public spaces as long as there have been civilizations,” says visiting artist Matthew Mazotta. “They have created work that ranges from revealing the beauty of the world to reflecting back society’s shortcomings.”

There are numerous examples in America of rural cities and small towns developing art and cultural experiences in their communities. They do so to encourage tourism and create local economic opportunities, certainly. But they also recognize that successful efforts to revitalize their communities and mainstreets depend on something deeper than simple economics.

No matter their size, thriving communities have at their heart vibrancy, an ability to lift their eyes to the horizon, to hope, to dream, and to act upon those dreams. Could there be any greater expression of such vibrancy than communities that embrace art and self-expression, especially at the community level?

For instance, the Wormfarm Institute has created a 50 mile art detour across the rolling hills of Sauk County, Wisconsin, attracting 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. For Green River, this simple use of art has helped get the ball rolling on the often daunting task of mainstreet revitalization.

In Northeast Nebraska, four communities are collaborating to create community-based art and cultural experiences that will not only display the vibrancy of these communities, but nurture it as well. Facilitated by the Center for Rural Affairs, the Byway of Art brought community members together earlier this fall in a series of mainstreet living room discussions, replete with living room furniture, coffee, and plenty of conversation right on these small town mainstreets.

The purpose, and perhaps more importantly, the outcome, of these conversations has been the development of a shared narrative. “We witnessed an outpouring by community members of fondness for their respective hometowns,” said Adele Phillips, who is spearheading the Byway of Art project. “They brought unique pieces of information together to create a more complete understanding of place and history. We also witnessed a catharsis; community members thoroughly enjoying the rare opportunity to be asked for their opinions in an open-ended manner.”

Decatur, Lyons, Macy, and Oakland, Nebraska – the communities involved in the Byway of Art – have demonstrated vision and courage in this project. The vision to see beauty and the power of art and self-expression in the future of their communities. The courage to step outside the lines and consider how their communities can find unique ways to create a better, richer, more rewarding future.

I encourage others in Nebraska, and beyond, to keep an eye on the Byway of Art communities. I am confident these communities will have something beautiful, something powerful, to show friends, neighbors, and visitors alike in the coming year.