Battery charger

The Rural Arts and Culture Summit was one of those events that made you want to get back home and get to work.  It’s been a few months since we attended, and I am still fired up.  There was something or somebody to learn from every moment we were there.

We attended as part of an organization that operates an historic site that also functions as a regional arts learning center.  The greatest benefit for us was that the gathering brought together all kinds of people involved and interested in the arts: musicians, visual artists, people who run arts organizations, theater folks, funders, community developers.

Anne Katz of Arts Wisconsin with other conference attendees

Each day was catalyzed by keynote speakers, including Wisconsin’s own Anne Katz, who spoke about the importance of measuring the specific contributions of artists, craftspeople and arts industry workers to an area’s economy.  Like farmers, many artists are self-employed and remain a shadow in the world of economic and employment data.  (Arts Wisconsin has great resources to help – check out their Arts Activist Toolkit.)

Anne was preceded by Bill Cleveland, writer, author, musician and director of the Study of Art and Community, who kicked off the conference’s opening day with a message of arts partnerships and community alliances.  Donna Walker-Kuene, a nationally known expert on audience development and veteran of over 15 Broadway productions, provided a closing day address on building access to the arts.

And the workshops were as varied as the conference participants.  I heard from a panel of state arts funders (North Dakota and Minnesota get it!) while my wife made a Ceramic Taco Fish.  I attended great presentations about feeding the Creative Economy in rural areas and developing regional strategies based on an area’s unique assets.  There were offerings about volunteer management and audience development, printmaking and Haiku, and even film screening. There was time to talk and plenty of time to listen.  I learned more about rural outreach in a half hour conversation with the director of a theater company located in an isolated part of Minnesota than I have over the last 10 years.

And copious thanks to organizers and suppliers for superbly prepared local food.

Great local food

The Summit was hosted and planned by A Center for the Arts and numerous partnering organizations and held at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls.  We were surprised by the place, frankly, as it is a stunning facility.  The building contains a permanent art collection started in 1960.  It now includes over 400 items which are seen everywhere in the college.  The art is beautiful and diverse – sculpture, paintings, weaving, woodwork, drawings, ceramics and wall carvings – and displayed and conserved by a curator who warmed our hearts with his passion.  Now that’s a proper environment for learning.

Fergus Falls was a treat.  It has what we think of as a “real” downtown.  There are scores of different stores and shops, and it did not come off as a tourist town, lively with locals and visitors alike. With a little exploration we discovered an all-but-abandoned little park on the east edge of town, aptly named Broken Down Dam Natural Area.  The only indication we were in the right place was a small sign and place for one vehicle to park at the dead end.  After a walk through a meadow and down a hillside we found an old dam, displaced by the power of the river it was built to contain.  It was a beautiful spot – the river rapids rushing over once grand stone ruins; isolated but within city boundaries; loud but still quiet.

The historic Fergus Theater, home to A Center for the Arts

The historic Fergus Theater is a gem from yesteryear with an incredible list of upcoming performances.  The city’s restaurants are outstanding.  And there are lots of ponds and lakes. Fergus Falls is so natural that cranes crowded  the trees in the park at dusk and made all kinds of fuss until they finally settled down for the night.

Some in-town exploring uncovered a great little Salvation Army.  That and the Goodwill Store gave us our Antiques Roadshow moment for the month.  For $40 at the Salvation Army we snagged a great 1936 German-made student guitar (in the original case – the original slides and picks were still there, too).  And at Goodwill we found five wonderful framed prints, an intact set from the 1860s, which we got for $3.99 each and saw for around $1,500 on the Internet.

It was a good place for this Summit.  These folks in Minnesota clearly understand that the arts are integral to keeping and attracting residents to their rural areas.  And they understand the business of arts and their importance to the economics of place as well as aesthetic framework of community.

Conferences are a little more difficult to attend in tough financial times and it is easy to forget how necessary getting together can be.  We live in the country and don’t get to network like we should.  The Summit was a reminder of the necessity of like-minded people to gather, speak, listen and learn and especially to strategize collectively when the influence of all of us is needed.

The Rural Arts and Culture Summit was not only excellent, it was unique.   Professional development is seldom so much fun.  As we get closer to the next event I will probably start to get tired and feel jaded about my arts volunteerism again, and need to charge the batteries.  And I’m also hoping the resale shops have more cool stuff when we come back.

What types of gatherings fire you up?

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI  (Pop. 283)



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