December 03, 2021

Is art the key to saving small towns?

When we talk about the struggles of rural America and how the small town is dying, often what is brought up are things the town needs. Such as better infrastructure, better schools, housing, more shops, ect. The idea of using art as a jumping point for all of those things is almost laughable, but the root of many small town problems is that people no longer have a reason to stay and be invested in small towns. Art can give people a reason, it can be the jumping off point for better education, more businesses opening up and better city planning.

As post-recession, rural America continues to struggle, some rural leaders, using private and public funding, are experimenting with the arts as a tool to fuel economic and community development.

The National Endowment for the Arts is helping communities by giving $125,000 in seed money to fund a “Next Generation” initiative to help build arts hubs in rural America. The idea is to connect artists, arts groups, civic leaders and philanthropists and encourage them to create sustainable cultural scenes in rural communities to help spur economic development and entice new, young residents. Iowa, Kentucky and Minnesota participated this year with other states looking to join next year.

You need arts in rural America so that the next generation wants to come there and live,” said Charles Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, a public policy institute located at the University of Iowa College of Public Health in an interview about the topic.

“If you do not build vibrant, inclusive, diverse places for young people, they’re not going to raise their families there. They’re simply not. And those communities will wither away,” Fluharty said. Using art and artist community pride can be fostered and jobs can be created that make use of the unique skills of younger genereations.

In nearly half of the country’s rural counties, more people have moved out than have moved in during every decade since the 1950s. Many rural communities are blighted, with vacant buildings and crumbling infrastructure. Rural unemployment has eased up since the recession, but creating jobs remains a challenge.

A recent study by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship found that half of the young people from rural communities said that they would love to stay in their hometowns if there were real career opportunities available for them. That means small town America needs to prepare to welcome them back.

Trying to woo back manufacturing in today’s service-driven economy is not realistic. All too often, big corporations swoop into a rural community but don’t end up hiring many locals. And they rarely stick around, leaving carcasses of abandoned industrial parks. For every dollar spent in big box stores, 90 cents goes outside the community, but for every dollar spent in a local food mart the opposite happens.