Our View: Vibrant arts scene can grow small towns

September 19, 2017 GMT

Small towns can be laboratories for the arts, and the art that’s made can become transformational for the community.

Fergus Falls, a town of 13,500 people on the edge of the lake country in west-central Minnesota, is gaining attention for just how true that it, and how the arts -- performing arts, visual arts, individual artists -- can transform a small town.

A story in the Star Tribune last week outlines how a nonprofit called Springboard for the Arts, based in St. Paul as well as Fergus Falls, has helped to bring together aspects of the arts community, coordinate grant-writing and helped promote a synergistic approach to arts in a small town. That, with the energy and talent of a lot of artists and audience members, has made the city a more dynamic, attractive place to live, work and do business.

“From the office’s opening in 2011 to 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts made four grants totaling $145,000 for Springboard’s work here. Springboard used that money to attract another $1.2 million,” the story says. “This summer, the office got more good news: two NEA grants totaling $175,000. One will go toward building a workbook that could be used in rural communities across the country.”

Southeast Minnesota has its share of small towns where the arts community is helping them grow. Lanesboro is the best-known, and Chatfield and Zumbrota are two others where creative and enterprising arts leaders are playing a major role.

Zumbrota is a haven for the arts, thanks to the advocacy and energy of people such as Marie Marvin and Crossings at Carnegie. The State Theatre’s healthy schedule of diverse performers brings in people from Rochester and around the area, and a thriving Main Street with locally owned stores helps bring it all together.

Then there’s Chatfield, where the Chatfield Center for the Arts ′ motto is, “Where culture, history, and community meet in the Chosen Valley of Southeast Minnesota.” The center, which was a project of the city’s Economic Development Authority, came about only because of the passion and commitment of local leaders, which led to a $5.2 million grant from the Legislature in 2014. The town’s Chosen Bean concert series is also a magnet for talented musicians.

Red Wing, with the Sheldon Theatre and the Depot Gallery, is on the cusp of a burgeoning local arts scene, and there are other examples around the area. Among larger cities in the area, Winona stands out.

The example of Fergus Falls, which punches above its weight in terms of its arts impact -- it ranks ahead of Red Wing, Northfield and St. Louis Park in a recent report on the impact of the arts on local economies -- can help small towns around Southeast Minnesota harness their own creative and economic potential.