The Limits of Art

                                           

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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.

The McKnight Foundation Report on Rural Arts in Minnesota

                                    

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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.
Federal Spending in Rural and Urban Areas

                                    

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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?

                                      

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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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In a nation where a breathtaking 46 million people are now living below the poverty line; where the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever; and where upward economic mobility is increasingly rare, these destitute, rural, largely minority communities represent the poorest of America’s poor — the very bottom of an economic ladder that fewer and fewer have the capacity to climb.

Viewed against the nation’s larger urban and suburban populations, their numbers are small. Only about 51 million Americans — less than 20 percent of the population — are considered nominally rural anymore, and minorities make up a fraction of that: about 10 million, all told. But their share of the poverty burden is, by any calculus, wildly disproportionate, making them emblematic of some of the country’s more unsettling and persistent truths.

Several anti-poverty advocates summed up the situation in a word: “embarrassing.”

—  Tom Zeller Jr. “Rural Minorities Ponder the American Dream from the Bottom Rung of the Economic Ladder.” Huffington Post, September 20, 2012.
Principles of Sustainable Development for Minnesota

                                   

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Here’s something I ran across in the reading for my other class that I didn’t know about—15 years ago, Governor Arne Carlson appointed thirty citizens to a Minnesota Round Table on Sustainable Development. The group came up with the following five principles to guide sustainable development in the state:

  1. Global interdependence. Economic prosperity, ecosystem health, liberty and justice are linked and our long-term well-being depends on all four. Local decisions must be informed by their regional and global context.
  2. Stewardship. Stewardship requires the recognition that we are all caretakers of the environment and the economy for the benefit of present and future generations. We must balance the impacts of today’s decisions with the needs of future generations.
  3. Conservation. Minnesotans must maintain essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life-support systems of the environment; harvest renewable resources on a sustainable basis; and make wise and efficient use of our renewable and non-renewable resources.
  4. Indicators. Minnesotans need to have and use clear goals and measurable indicators based on reliable information to guide public policies and private actions towards long-term economic prosperity, community vitality, cultural diversity and healthy ecosystems.
  5. Shared responsibility. All Minnesotans accept responsibility for sustaining the environment and the economy, with each being accountable for his or her decisions and actions, in a spirit of partnership and open cooperation. No entity has the right to shift the costs of its behavior to other individuals, communities, states, nations, or future generations. Full-cost accounting is essential for assuring shared responsibility.

—Quoted in pp 34-35 of The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift by Andres R. Edwards

Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard C. Longworth

                                                              

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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.

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