Awareness is growing that participation in the arts enhances the quality of life and the economy in rural American communities. The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices published the issue brief Strengthening Rural Economies through the Arts with support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and research assistance from NASAA. This publication makes the points that arts based activities can diversify rural economies, generate net revenues, improve community life, be a magnet for knowledge workers, draw visitors and attract investment. It documents state strategies including creating incentives to attract artists and arts groups; integrating the arts as an industry into economic development and sustainable tourism plans; using higher-education systems to train and offer business assistance to the arts community; and using traditional entrepreneurship and economic development tools such as incubators and start-up capital programs. Heritage corridors and cultural trails in several states are highlighted, as well as apprentice programs, book festivals, map guides, and collaborations with agencies of rural development, transportation, housing and energy at the state and local levels.
This year, the same partnership produced New Engines of Growth: Five Roles for Arts, Culture, and Design. This report highlights many rural examples, including an arts based revitalization strategy for the devastated copper mining town of Ajo, Arizona; the Danville Transportation Enhancement Project that includes the Vermont Arts Council as a partner in the redevelopment of a portion of U.S. Route 2; and North Carolina's HandMade in America and Homegrown Handmade programs, which have inspired initiatives in other states such as Indiana, Kentucky and Montana.
A variety of very effective programs to assist rural community development now offer opportunities to integrate the arts in their strategies. One of these, the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design (CIRD), is supported by the NEA and offers workshops that bring local leaders together with experts in planning, design and creative place making to assist with locally identified issues. To sustain these services, a new partnership has been organized consisting of the NEA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Project for Public Spaces, the Orton Family Foundation and the CommunityMatters® Partnership. The NEA's CIRD page has useful background information. The CIRD website is loaded with case studies of the circumstances, agendas and strategies developed by these gatherings in such rural communities as Coos Bay, Oregon; Harrodsburg, Kentucky; Pendleton, South Carolina; and Mart, Texas.
Another resource is the Rural Jobs Challenge Program, a collaboration among the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration, USDA, the Delta Regional Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission. NEA Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett, who has a great deal of knowledge about federal agency collaborations, brought to my attention an excellent article on this program: "Rural Jobs, Communities Get a Boost." The article lists 13 projects funded this year, several of which have words like rural jobs accelerator partnership in their name, similar to this one: "Virginia: Appalachian Spring – Using Asset-Based and Creative Economy Methods to Catalyze Rural Job Acceleration, $815,000."
State arts agencies (SAAs) have a long history of ensuring that staff services and grant funds benefit rural communities. Every state, as we all know, has large areas outside of metropolitan population centers. In fiscal year 2011, SAAs delivered 5,523 grants (25% of all grants) totaling more than $37 million to rural grantees. In doing so, SAAs extend the reach of their state governments and, with NEA Partnership Agreement support, that of the NEA to worthy local projects in underserved areas.
For additional information related to rural arts development, see NASAA's catalogue of a broad range of State Arts Agency Creative Economy initiatives, and do not hesitate to contact a NASAA staff member. As always, your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.