Can the Arts Save Rural America From the Recession?

SourceImage Shutterstock, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Can the Arts Save Rural America From the Recession?

By Stephen Starr


Arts investment helped small communities after the Great Recession. Can it revive their economies again?

By Stephen Starr

  • Small towns across rural America are turning to galleries, museums and craft breweries as economic saviors.
  • Residents in rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations earn up to $6,000 more than counties without them.

There’s nothing unusual about Jean Jensen selling up to 30 pastel, watercolor or oil paintings a year. What is unusual is that most of her landscape- and nature-themed works are bought in Lewellen, a community of 211 residents in western Nebraska. That’s where Jensen and her family run the aptly named Most Unlikely Place Gallery. The nearest city is Denver, a three-and-a-quarter-hour drive southwest; the nearest interstate is 20 miles away.

But Lewellen’s remoteness is not a cause for concern for the people who call it home. In the past few years Jensen’s gallery has branched out, hosting public speakings, book readings, musical performances and sit-down meals. The majority of the approximately 400 monthly summertime visitors travel from up to 80 miles away for birthdays and other celebratory events, says Jensen. “It kind of grew into what it is,” she says. “Our sales have been so consistent from year to year.”

Artist Jean jensen, (l), and sister-in-law Cynthia Miller, who runs the Most Unlikely Place gallery

Artist Jean Jenson (left) and sister-in-law Cynthia Miller, who runs the Most Unlikely Place Gallery in Lewellen, Nebraska.

Source Jean Jensen

Lewellen isn’t the only small Great Plains community building an arts scene to attract visitors. Grant, Nebraska (population 1,120), and Holyoke, Colorado (population 2,215), have seen galleries open in recent years. Far from major population centers or cutting-edge cultural trends, galleries, museums and craft breweries have collectively brought life — and cash — back to rural communities devastated in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession and by longer-term decline. Now, these communities are counting on art to keep their economies going amid the crisis spawned by the coronavirus pandemic.

Their hopes are being fueled by both small-scale operations such as Jensen’s and by broader efforts. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, distributed 133 grants worth $3.5 million in rural, non-metro areas with populations of less than 50,000 in 2017. Amid the pandemic, the NEA has announced $75 million in relief funds to arts organizations. State governments, commissions and universities are also pumping millions of dollars into small-scale rural arts ventures. Minnesota spends around $39 million on the arts and cultural heritage every year.

To keep people and attract young people [small towns] have to have the amenities and activities that they want to be a part of.

George Tzougros, executive director, Wisconsin Arts Board

Such initiatives are paying dividends. In 2015, arts and cultural initiatives contributed $67.5 billion to states where at least 30 percent of the population live in rural areas. According to the Rural Establishment Innovation Survey, residents in rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations earn up to $6,000 more than people who live in rural counties without such platforms. All of this is sparking hope for a revival of rural counties — half of which have seen their population decline since 2000 — and at a time when experts are predicting mass migration from urban centers to smaller towns because of the growing costs in cities and the increased possibilities for working from home.

“To keep people and attract young people [small towns] have to have the amenities and activities that they want to be a part of,” says George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board.

The Ashland Mural Walk in Wisconsin’s far north is a leading tourist attraction for the town of 8,200 people. In nearby Washburn, home to around 2,000 people, Karlyn’s Gallery is one of the top employers. Launched in 2011, the biennial Farm/Art DTour, a 27-stop self-guided tour of artworks installed on farmland in Sauk County, Wisconsin, helps connect visitors with local food producers. Approximately 22,500 out-of-towners attend the fall event.


Ashland Mural Walk

Source Bobby Light/CC

The direct financial benefits of arts and cultural spaces to rural communities can be hard to pinpoint. And while 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, just 2 percent of arts foundation funding goes to rural arts groups, according to the Helicon Collaborative. Funding cuts have left the Wisconsin Arts Board, for instance, with a staff of four, reduced from 10, says Tzougros.  

Vermont, Maine, Ohio, Michigan and Oklahoma have offered programs and grants that skew toward the arts to convince young people to move to their emptying small towns. And in some cases, it has worked. In 2018, the first year of Vermont’s project that pays grantees $10,000 over the course of two years, 87 people moved to the northeastern state, far exceeding the organizers’ expectations. Even when successful, though, the numbers involved are small. And then there are the broader challenges mounting in rural communities: fewer people farming, poor internet speeds and worker shortages.

Still, experts say that the gains from having arts-related facilities, while uneven, are real. Support from organizations such as ArtPlace America, an arts collaborative that saw more than half of its 2017 funded projects located in rural areas, and the NEA has created a “sea change” moment over the past decade, says Matt Fluharty, executive director of Art of the Rural, a rural advocacy nonprofit. “There’s been successful coordination to communicate the positive economic impact of the arts,” he says.

Tellingly, once a venture succeeds it often encourages more growth. In 2014, Jean Jensen’s family bought a corner building a few doors down from the Most Unlikely Place Gallery. They painted the building and rented it to the county art club, which has since opened it as an art gallery, where the work of around a dozen artists is displayed.

“We knew this building was keeping people from turning into Main Street,” says Jensen, “and now it brings people into town.”