MCAD at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit

Look out Morris, MCAD is coming to town! I am pleased as all get-out to announce that MCAD will be presenting on its Greater Minnesota Arts Initiative at this year’s Rural Arts and Culture Summit to be held on June 5-6. We don’t know precisely when our session is yet, but we expect to be presenting sometime on June 5.

And, as a special bonus, one of the keynote speakers this year is alum John Davis ’84. Winning.

Population Changes in Rural America



I’ve linked to the blog Daily Yonder in the past; anyone interested in a broad survey of rural issues should check them out. Here’s a helpful post that compiles census data to look at population growth and decline in rural America. As a bonus, the crew over at MPR has done a similar post focusing solely on Minnesota and produced the map below; you can read the full post here.



I was surprised to see that Chippewa County is still showing a natural increase in population that does not appear to be the result of in-migration, since this contradicts information the Minnesota State Demographic center compiled from the 2010 census

Image credits: Daily Yonder and MPR.

The Limits of Art



Reading the recent Pioneer Press article about the problems Marshall, MN is having finding adequate water to support its industrial economic base reminded me that I probably need to circle back to one of the core questions I outlined in my post explaining what I want to accomplish this semester. One of the things I said I was interested in exploring was the following:

Is is possible to shift away from extractive industries such as industrial farming, mining, and logging in rural areas and focus more on environmentally sustainable alternatives?

I phrased the question poorly. As written, my answer would be that I believe it’s possible to some extent to shift away from the prevailing model of rural economic development towards more sustainable economies, but that it’s going to be very difficult without a tremendous amount of support, and I just don’t see that happening right now.

I think a more useful way to approach this question is to instead ask

How might we shift away from extractive industries as the core economic base of rural economies and instead focus on more sustainable alternatives?

The answer to this question is that we need to completely rethink how we approach rural economic development. The state’s signature rural-development program of the last decade, JOBZ, primarily subsidized manufacturing businesses through tax breaks (and, incidentally, an audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor showed the program wasn’t very effective at assisting economically distressed areas in Greater Minnesota plus had major problems in how it was administered).

Unfortunately, government seems to be very reluctant to shift away from the conventional approaches to shoring up rural economies. In Caught in the Middle, Longworth writes that:

[S]tate officials know perfectly well that globalization will swallow their traditional industries. But they’re stuck. Workers vote, and a worker who has just lost his job will be an angry voter. When a plant is threatened, the local legislators hear about it constantly—from workers worried about their jobs, from cities worried about tax money. When an old factory closes, governors get blamed. When a new factory opens, governors get to cut ribbons. (p. 35).

Thomas Frank touched on the lack of political solutions in his Baffler article when he wrote that:

It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions as before, gussied up with a new set of clichés. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren’t already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool.

He’s scathing, but he’s correct.

I bring this up because one of the four rules of thumb I outlined in terms of doing creative rural development was to think about things from a systemic perspective. And in doing that, I have to admit that the larger context is that our systems of government are doing next to nothing to plan for how we—all of us, American and Minnesotans, urban and rural—can transition away from economies that simply are not sustainable in the long run. The results, I fear, are going to be rather unpleasant. I don’t subscribe to the school of thinking that theorizes we’re going to have an all-out societal collapse as the result of dwindling fossil fuel resources; rather I think we’re going to see things like significantly reduced standards of living related to energy and food costs, continued economic uncertainty and political paralysis, and a lot of angry and scared people.

Which leads us to the elephant in the room: art cannot fix all these problems. If the Archers Daniel Midland plant closes in Marshall, it is not realistic to think that the arts can fill the economic hole left by such an eventuality. Hell, I’m not sure anything can—the truth is that a lot of rural areas are going to sustain severe economic injuries in the coming decade or two and that a distressingly high number of these fiscal wounds are going to prove fatal for small towns. The Iron Range is a prime example of what happens to communities when the main industry is no longer able to support the number of workers it used to.

Nevertheless, art still has a role to play. I think the arts can be one of many approaches used by rural communities to diversify their economies and equip themselves to best weather the changes that are coming. Experimenting with and employing a variety of strategies is going to be key. Fifteen years ago, Minnesota had a roundtable produce sustainable principles of development for the state, and the arts fit nicely into the five approaches outlined by the roundtable. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a start.

10,000 Lakes, Not Enough Water



The Pioneer Press is doing a three-part series on water shortages in Minnesota. The second article in the series is about the challenges rural areas are having in addressing their water needs and how these rural towns could be early indicators of the trouble facing the Twin Cities as the climate changes and demand for water increases.

Image credit: Pioneer Press

It Takes Time to See



Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.
—Georgia O’Keeffe

In my last post, I listed four guidelines for doing community work centered on art and design, the first of which was “respect the artists and the community.” I’m going to spend some time here expanding on what exactly I mean by that statement. I’ll start by focusing on respecting communities in this first post, and in a subsequent post I’ll deal more specifically with respecting artists.

Part I: Respecting the community

Working with communities different than your own is really, really challenging. I absolutely want to be upfront about that. Understanding the needs and dynamics of a community is a process that is essential to being able to propose and implement workable solutions to identified problems. On top of that, you have to be cognizant of landmines such as the systems of privilege that serve as an undercurrent to the dialogue you’re trying to foster. In terms of cross-cultural exchanges, sending a bunch of middle-class, mostly white college students from Minneapolis to greater Minnesota is a much lower degree of difficulty than, say, sending them to Saudi Arabia. That being said, it’s still distressingly easy to royally screw it up.

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Time and time again, you will see the enormous impact that one or two individuals have had on a small community. While even the Herculean efforts of many people can be lost in teeming urban areas, in rural towns there’s often a shorter (though not necessarily smoother) path between an individual’s great idea and its realization.
With smaller populations, it’s not impossible to get “everyone” involved.
—  Neal Cuthbert, “Bright Stars: Charting the Impact of the Arts in Rural Minnesota.” The McKnight Foundation. September 2005.
The McKnight Foundation Report on Rural Arts in Minnesota



In 2005, the McKnight Foundation issued one of the first reports on rural arts in Minnesota. Entitled Bright Stars, the report examines four major areas—creating opportunities for engagement, developing leaders, shaping community identity, and the new rural arts economy. The report explores these areas by presenting several community case studies for each topic. Towns profiled include Grand Marais, Bemidji, New York Mills, Montevideo, Big Fork, Fergus Falls, and Harmony.

The report concludes with several recommendations for communities to capitalize on the arts as a tool for community building, including:

  • Engaging citizens, visitors, neighbors, and friends through fostering the creation of artistic works that encourage dialogue and building broad community partnerships around art opportunities.
  • Enhancing citizen collaboration and creating community solutions through diverse leadership by granting artists and arts leaders a place at the table when discussing community challenges and establishing artistic collaborations that encourage citizens to reach beyond traditional roles to share resources.
  • Shaping community identity by recognizing and preserving the contributions the arts have already made to the community and identifying the ways that the arts strengthen the values that citizens hold in common.
  • Developing new economic opportunities by creating and packaging community-specific definitions of art, establishing an arts brand identity for the community, and recognizing that cultural tourism is not the only way the arts contribute to rural economies.
A Conversation with the Garden Goddess



I’m absolutely tickled to post the following email interview with the smart, dedicated, and funny-as-hell Carol Ford. Carol and her husband Chuck Waibel co-founded, own, and operate Garden Goddess Enterprises, a winter micro-CSA located in Milan, MN (population 320). Carol and Chuck designed a passive solar greenhouse that they built attached to their garage and within they grow a variety of fresh vegetables over the winter months. The work they do hits right at the sweet spot of creativity, design, and community building in rural areas that I’m exploring. Enjoy! —K.M.

Can you start by talking a little bit about Garden Goddess?

Garden Goddess Produce is a winter CSA that began in 2005. It offers weekly deliveries of winter storage crops along with fresh greens grown in a passive solar winter greenhouse. The delivery season runs from mid-October to mid-April. With a greenhouse that is 16’  x 22’ it has been determined that maximum production provides sufficient fresh greens to supply 12 full shares. Many CSA members have chosen to split their shares with other families so the membership as of 2012 includes 20 families ranging from 1-4 family members.

Garden Goddess Produce is part of Garden Goddess Enterprises, which includes our publishing endeavors, consulting and presentations & training workshops.

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Federal Spending in Rural and Urban Areas



Bill Bishop over at the blog Daily Yonder did some excellent sleuthing and number crunching relating to per-capita federal spending in rural and urban areas. His conclusion:

The gap between federal spending in rural counties and in metro counties grew from 2009 to 2010, according to figures released by the federal Economic Research Service. Per capita federal spending in metro counties has been higher than spending in rural counties for five out of the last seven years, according to the ERS, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2009, federal spending in rural counties was $285 less per person than in metro counties. In 2010, that gap more than doubled, to $683 per person. In 2010, the federal government spent $10,976 per person in metro (or urban) counties and $10,293 per person in nonmetro (or rural) counties.

I pulled the Minnesota spreadsheet from the ERS’s website and looked at the numbers on a county-by-county basis. The pattern that Bishop has identified nationwide isn’t so simple in Minnesota. Overall, spending for the entire state is $10,517 per person. The five counties with the highest per-capita spending rate are as follows:

1. Kittson County ($18,710 per capita)

2. Traverse County ($17,173 per capita)

3. Norman ($16,618 per capita)

4. Ramsey ($15,493 per capita)

5. Marshall ($15,251 per capita)

Photo credit: Ted Birt for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Solidarity Forever?



Believe it or not, a picture of the Hormel meat packing plant hangs on my maternal grandmother’s living-room wall in her home in Austin, Minnesota. Every day, 19,000 live hogs arrive at this plant, are slaughtered, butchered, and processed into a variety of familiar pork products, the most (in)famous being SPAM.

Austin is a town of just under 25,000 people in Mower County, near the southern border of the state. For the past 122 years, the town’s ups and downs have been inextricably bound with those of the Hormel Foods Corporation. In turn, it’s impossible to write about Hormel and Austin without referencing that one of the ugliest fights in organized labor in the 1980s happened in this small rural town.

This is a story about the decline of unions in America over the past sixty years. It is also a story about my family.

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Rural Minnesota—the parts of the state outside the Twin Cities metro and the larger regional cities—has lost its influence in policy discussions that occur both in the private and public sectors. On this point, there is near unanimous opinion among influential Minnesotans who participated in a study sponsored by the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD). What is less clear is how rural Minnesota can regain an effective voice and how organizations like the Center can better define and elevate issues and solutions that are critical to the region’s future.
—  Tom Horner, “Finding the Voice of Rural Minnesota.” Overall, the report is short on in-depth exploration of the challenges to Greater Minnesota or new insight on possible solutions, but it serves as a useful summary of the current context of rural affairs in the state.
Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard C. Longworth



I’m having a bit of a hard time knowing quite where to begin when writing about Richard Longworth’s book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. The book is overall instructive in outlining many of the challenges currently being faced by rural areas of the Midwest and the predominant thinking on how to address those issues. It’s also alternates between insightful and insulting and at times made for an extremely frustrating read.

Let’s start with what I think Longworth gets right. He’s absolutely correct in that globalization has been a major force in changing Midwestern and rural economies over the past half-century. Much of the heavy manufacturing that was a stable of the economies of cities like Detroit and Cleveland has been outsourced. The influence of organized labor has been decimated. Thousands of family farms have been consolidated and industrial methods of agricultural production have displaced small, diversified family farms.

Where Longworth and I part ways is in the proposed solutions to the problems identified above. I think the book is instructive in that Longworth’s thinking seems to be an excellent example of the prevailing conventional wisdom regarding rural issues. What do I mean by that? He is focused on finding economic solutions, but is not taking into account issues of the environment or social justice. In other words, he is not examining solutions that are sustainable.

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MPR News: How to Revitalize Rural America


Some very interesting discussions happening in this piece, including a discussion of the political influence of rural areas. There’s been a bit in the news this week tied to the decreasing political clout of rural populations in light of the legislation introduced in Virginia by the GOP to change how electoral votes are apportioned. I also like that the point is made that rural is not synonymous with farming. Rural economies are far more diverse than only agriculture and a variety of strategies—including an emphasis on encouraging entrepreneurship and the expansion of broadband access—are necessary for rural revitalization.

Rural character and definitions of rural places have scales and relationships to the natural and cultivated environments that are entirely different from those that urban design has in its relationship to urban environments. This difference requires rural designers to have an understanding of the cultural landscape as well as the natural landscape of the rural region within which they are working.
—  Dewey Thorbeck, Rural Design: A New Design Discipline. p.5
The urban/rural divide illustrated in two quotes

"Frankly, I believe that ethics mean more in rural America than they do in urban America. I don’t tell urban communities how they should live. What I see, however, are arrogant, liberal, urban elitists epitomized by the Des Moines Register that think they are smarter, more sophisticated, and better than those of us living in rural America. They think they know how much nitrogen we should put in our corn. They think Washington and Des Moines know best and we poor dumb folks out here need their guidance and education. They think everything outside the city limits is a city park and that they should administer it…

They are the ones with the strong economy. The economy in which computer chips are worth more than corn. The ones where they pay $1.19 for a plastic bottle of spring water, $30,000 for an automobile, and complain about the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Urban America is spoiled rotten. Their values change with each passing fad. Big city folks decide what’s politically correct and then belittle us when we don’t passionately embrace their causes. Rural America rejected their arrogance in this election. Rural America expects leaders and people to display character and integrity. Urban America expects to forgive leaders and people for their lack of character and integrity. We hold our leaders to a higher standard of conduct than they do. The honest, integrity, work ethic, and productivity of workers in rural areas far exceed those in states that voted for Bush than states that voted for Gore.”

— David Kruse, agricultural commentator and market analyst. Quoted in Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard C. Longworth.


"It’s time to state something that we’ve felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion—New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on. And we live on islands in red states too—a fact obscured by that state-by-state map. Denver and Boulder are our islands in Colorado; Austin is our island in Texas; Las Vegas is our island in Nevada; Miami and Fort Lauderdale are our islands in Florida. Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland “values” like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans. They—rural, red-state voters, the denizens of the exurbs—are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hate-mongers […]

To all those who live in cities—to all those depressed Kerry supporters out there—we say take heart. Clearly we can’t control national politics right now—we can barely get a hearing. We can, however, stay engaged in our cities, and make our voices heard in the urban areas we dominate, and make each and every one, to quote Ronald Reagan (and John Winthrop, the 17th-century Puritan Reagan was parroting), “a city on a hill.” This is not a retreat; it is a long-term strategy for the Democratic Party to cater to and build on its base.

To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: Fuck off. Your issues are no longer our issues.”

— The editors of the The Stranger, in a post-2004 election essay entitled The Urban Archipelago.