Why not? Small towns are the great frontier of arts in America.

Bonnie Schock, Sheldon Executive Director

Cherished time with friends. Meeting your music idol. Experiencing an all-new creative experiment by much loved artists. Dancing and cheering and community connection and confetti cannons! Opening weekend of the 2017-2018 Sheldon Theatre of Performing Arts season was all this and much more. It was a testament to the power of the arts in a small town.

At this weekend’s celebration, pretty Red Wing (pop. 16,000) welcomed Grammy winning, viral-video innovators and all-around joyful band OK GO to the historic 468 (ish) seat Sheldon Theatre. It was unexpected, right? What was this band doing in this little town? In fact, during the show, an audience member asked OK GO’s lead singer, Damian Kulash, just that. “Why Red Wing?” she called out during an in-between songs casual Q&A (the kind of thing you get to do in an intimate setting such as this!) He responded, aptly, “why not?”

Small towns are the great frontier for the arts in America. Often neglected in favor of the ease and critical mass of major metropolitan areas, the truth is: arts lovers and fans are here, too.

Yes. WHY NOT? Small towns are the great frontier for the arts in America. Often neglected in favor of the ease and critical mass of major metropolitan areas, the truth is: arts lovers and fans are here, too. Recent research and industry conversation has focused on how the arts are being used successfully as economic drivers for small communities, reinvigorating and “saving” towns (1). As a performing arts curator, I’m not so interested in a savior mentality. I’m more interested in small communities as genuine, sometimes overlooked places of meaningful creative exchange, and the impact the arts have in the life of such a community.

And, I believe that the entire arts industry needs to ask this simple, poignant question…again and again and again: Why not?

High quality arts activities have proportionally greater resonance in small communities than in major metropolitan areas where such events may be more commonplace. Here in Minnesota, there are examples of small town impacts all over the state. From little Lanesboro which was named one of 12 top small town art places by the NEA (2); to the attention that Winona has recently garnered for its growing, increasingly diverse arts scene (3); to Americans for the Arts noting Minnesota itself as a leader in rural arts (4), due in part to the visionary establishment of the Legacy Amendment and its Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (5).

When, like last weekend at the Sheldon in Red Wing, a nationally known performer travels outside of a major metropolitan area, when they take the time to show up in a smaller community, it matters. These are places where arts activities run deep and wide. The whole town shows up; people travel from all over; the entire business community rallies in support; people talk about it on the street both before and after, because so many who live and work here shared something together; it is a special occasion and we take notice. For artists, the experience of engaging with a small town is different, too. Nobody will tell you the truth or love you more than a small town!

Money is moved around. That’s true. There is economic impact. In fact, there is a lot of it, and that is important (6). In addition to the dollars and cents, real community connections are made and strengthened. Residents feel more connected to their downtowns, to their neighbors, to place, to the positive, exciting, thought-provoking, fun experiences they have right close to home. We feel pride. We feel grounded. We feel part of the whole.

The arts are not an urban product. They are a human phenomenon. And, art of all shapes and sizes belongs in small towns all across America. Let’s make it happen together.

Why not? and…

What if?

1 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/can-the-arts-help-save-rural-america_us_5808cc76e4b021af3477679c
2 https://blogs.mprnews.org/state-of-the-arts/2013/04/lanesboro-named-top-small-town-artplace/
3 http://www.startribune.com/in-summer-minnesota-river-town-of-winona-becomes-world-class-cultural-capital/434363533/#1
4 http://www.americansforthearts.org/news-room/art-in-the-news/minnesota-considered-national-leader-in-rural-arts-initiatives
5 http://www.arts.state.mn.us/grants/machf.htm
6 http://creativemn.org/