Summit explores role of arts, culture in enhancing rural communities

By Cindy Hadish

Published on September 27, 2016

open sign broad through the glass of window at coffee shopPeople living in rural communities need the same access as their urban counterparts, not only to clean water, jobs, housing and other basic standards of living, but art and culture, as well, note the backers of a growing movement called “rural creative placemaking.”

Led by the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, researchers have been providing analysis and information on the challenges and opportunities facing rural America since the institute’s inception in 1990. Only recently, though, has the “creative” aspect come into play.

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, city or region around arts and cultural activities to rejuvenate spaces, improve business viability and public safety, and bring people together.

A national spotlight will focus on those efforts as the first summit for rural creative placemaking takes place Oct. 12-14 at the University of Iowa.

Attracting the Next Generation

“Chefs, growers, musicians, artists and other makers build an expressive, exciting place that adds to the quality of life of that place and the vibrancy of that quality of rural life,” said Charles Fluharty, RUPRI’s president and CEO.

That vibrant quality of life is essential in attracting the next generation to rural communities, Fluharty said, in order to sustain those places and the culture which has built and sustained them.

From a public health standpoint, 40 percent of health care costs stem from social determinants of health; conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. Those circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels, so the distribution of money and resources is significant, Fluharty said, citing massive funding flow inequities for rural areas.

He noted that rural residents receive less than five percent of national philanthropic funding, and significantly less federal community and economic development support than urban places, therefore rural regions receive far less support than urban areas for community development. But the health of the nation’s cities is intertwined with the sustainability of rural areas – where 75 percent of our country’s natural resources exist, and need careful stewarding – so investing in rural communities has a significant benefit on a far broader scale, Fluharty said.

Key to that investment is attracting young families who will stay in a community if they can find a job, he added, and if they deem the place diverse, inclusive and dynamic, with opportunities for personal expression and community engagement.

“It doesn’t really matter how much federal, state or local money you invest in a place if it cannot attract the next generation of citizens to raise a family there,” Fluharty said. “Absent that, this community will eventually wither away.”

The Importance of Arts and Culture

group of diverse adults dining at long table outdoorsOftentimes, rural artists are used as a tool to draw in tourists during a weekend art fair, for example, but rural art and cultural expression should be seen as an investment, such as in a school music program in order to sustain the quality of life in that place, he noted.

“If art investments are only appreciated for their contribution to regional GDP, one misses the role investments play in rural quality of life, far beyond economic output,” Fluharty said. “Where that does not occur, it’s palpable.”

In rural areas, when successful collaborations do occur, other rural communities often fail to share those benefits and lessons learned, it is difficult to share the benefits and lessons learned, given the distance and other factors involved in disseminating information. A new “Next Generation” initiative has been designed to address those challenges.

During a session this summer at the Des Moines Social Club, 50 Iowa arts and culture practitioners and public policy makers identified a list of priorities for the Iowa Next Generation Working Group. Similar efforts are underway in Minnesota and Kentucky, states in the pilot program along with Iowa.

Iowa’s priorities are:

  • Create a rural arts and culture network at the state or regional level that would, among other objectives, build rural arts advocacy;
  • Increase awareness of the economic and community development potential offered by rural arts and culture and build stronger alignment between this sector and non-sector public policy makers;
  • Create new frameworks to better engage rural youth in arts and cultural participation, particularly through stronger advocacy for K-12 Arts programming;
  • Create and coordinate new channels with a story-telling emphasis to enhance awareness of the importance and efficacy of rural arts and culture in the state’s public life.

A New Direction

In one collaborative example from this summer’s session, a Fairfield art gallery owner in eastern Iowa connected with a person in Malvern, in southwestern Iowa, to identify Iowa artists to showcase in her gallery.

“Art takes us in a new direction,” said Bill Menner, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development State Director in Iowa, who serves as co-chairman of Iowa’s Next Generation Working Group.

Woman holding basket of vegetables, close up, Menner’s USDA agency focuses on financing rural housing, public facilities, businesses, and water and sewer systems that are components of strong, vibrant communities critical to residents and farmers alike.

Rather than dying out, Menner sees small towns taking a more entrepreneurial approach to attracting and retaining the next generation. Low crime rates, expansive space and a lower cost of living are among the attributes that can attract those residents, he said.

Menner cited an editorial piece by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, which noted that, despite concerns about the fate of rural America, a number of key benchmarks show these areas have been growing economically in the past two years, with falling poverty rates and median household income in non-metro areas increasing by 3.4 percent in 2015.

Vilsack will be the keynote speaker Oct. 14, during the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking national summit at the University of Iowa.

Matthew Fluharty, Charles Fluharty’s son, has been collaborating with his father for the first time on the Next Generation efforts; a collaboration that somewhat serves as a metaphor for the future of rural communities.

The younger Fluharty established Art of the Rural, an organization that helps build the rural arts field and is a co-host of the Next Generation summit, along with RUPRI.

The Cultural Identity of Communities

Goals of the three-day summit include relationship building, an intellectual exchange about the successes and challenges facing rural arts and finding support structures and funding for that work, he said.

Examples of success stories and the people behind them will be highlighted at the summit, including Zach Mannheimer, vice president of creative placemaking for Iowa Business Growth Co., who was a founder of the Social Club, a cultural hub in downtown Des Moines.

The USDA’s Menner also is among the list of panelists and speakers at the summit, which includes a social dance, wellness activities and other cultural events. The summit is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Menner hopes attendees come away with a greater awareness of the relationship between art in its many forms – singing in a church choir or joining a book club at the local library, for example – and the cultural identity of communities.

“The arts and culture are critical elements to life in any community,” he said. “Just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to it.”