Creative Placemaking through Rural Art Investments

Creative Placemaking through Rural Art Investments

As Midwesterners and rural dwellers, we are often drawn to awe-inspiring mountains, exciting cosmopolitans, or pristine beaches for vacations. However, every harvest season, I feel it’s difficult to find a more beautiful place than our southern Minnesota prairie landscape. Yet beyond our amber waves of corn and tranquil lakes edged with fall colors, there is a different kind of beauty that helps shape our rural communities: a vibrant arts culture.

Whether a new welcome sign or a county highway dotted with barn quilt murals, a craft market alongside a farmers market or an artisanal farm that also hosts local musicians, southern Minnesota communities are filled with grass-root efforts of creative output. At the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we see it as our role to encourage these creative bottom-up investments as a form of economic development. Over the years, we’ve given several arts-focused grants and loans, often in partnership with others. Our newest partnership with 13 local Ace Hardware stores for a Paint the Town grant has resulted in five new murals in some of our smallest communities.

It’s relatively easy to express the Foundation’s economic development work in terms of dollars and cents – dollars invested through loans, equity, grants and staff time to help launch entrepreneurs’ ideas or expand existing businesses. These businesses in turn provide goods and services, create jobs, and pay taxes. It’s always been harder to quantify the value of investments in art, or “creative placemaking,” defined by the National Endowment of the Arts as public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors partnering to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. While hard to monetize, it’s useful to remember that humans have been creating art far longer than we’ve been farming.

In a recent three-year Soul of the Community study by Knight Foundation and Gallup, they found communities with the highest level of attachment to their city had the highest rate of GDP growth. Attachment to a place is tied to social offerings, openness, and aesthetics. These are important engagement strategies to keep in mind as we continue to think collectively about how we attract and retain the “brain gain” cohort of 30-49 year olds moving back to our rural communities.

Younger generations are increasingly choosing location over jobs, unlike their parents, who often tended to relocate for a job, hoping they liked where they landed. Increasingly, today’s generations want a place with a strong cultural base and an engaged community. Attracting this demographic helps us diversify our local economies, increase our tax base, and generate new energy and ideas. In my view, investing in cultural expression through the arts is not just a nice thing to do, but a necessary one. Enlisting newcomers to help with creative placemaking efforts is just one strategy for retaining them longer-term.

We need to look beyond our main streets as relics of what once was and envision instead what they could become. Our towns are filled with proud histories and dedicated, loyal residents. Through SMIF’s various programs, several area towns are getting new murals. Some of our opportunity grants are going towards tourism efforts. Entrepreneurs are moving in to old spaces and creating new enterprises. Many of our nonprofit partners are working to engage artists. Other partners are creatively drawing on technology; for example, Winona utilized a SMIF Community Growth Initiative grant to create a downtown app that helps visitors navigate its downtown businesses and art and entertainment options.

The encouraging thing about most of the creative initiatives SMIF has supported is that they’ve been driven by residents themselves, often spearheaded by just a few industrious individuals. To borrow from Margaret Mead: “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.” At SMIF, we will keep planting small seeds and “tilling the ground” (in fact, the Latin root of “culture”) to create more opportunities for our rural arts.

If you have a creative idea of how to artistically reflect the culture of your community, reach out to SMIF – we want to hear from you. I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Sources Referenced:
National Endowment for the Arts “Creative Placemaking” PDF:
Knight Foundation and Gallup Soul of the Community study:
“Downtown Winona” app:

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