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With emphasis on arts, rural communities challenge national narrative of decline


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Rural America has experienced a rebound of sort in recent years. And some residents of those areas point to a perhaps unexpected reason: the arts.

The National Governors Association reports that rural counties with performing arts organizations had population growth three times higher than counties without them.

Jeffrey Brown recently found a gathering celebrating and helping to spread this trend.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Friday night, hot jazz, but we're not in a flashy club in New York. This is the VFW in the town of Grand Rapids in Northern Minnesota.

On the guitar, Sam Miltich, who grew up here and has performed in hundreds of venues around the world, but this small stage is home.

Sam Miltich: People thought I was kind of crazy to try and make a life as a jazz musician in Northern Minnesota.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, it does sound a little crazy.

Sam Miltich: It does sound a little crazy. And, actually, maybe it is a little bit crazy.

But the quality of life where I grew up was just so high. And I was, like, acutely aware of how good that life was. And I wanted that life.

Jeffrey Brown: And he's not alone, as we saw in the nearby performing arts center that played host to a recent rural arts and culture summit and.

The summit is a biennial event held in different towns. This one brought together some 350 artists and community leaders from 25 states to exchange ideas, celebrate the role of creativity in small towns, and fight a national narrative about rural America in decline.

Laura Zabel: That's a pretty simple way to tell that story. And I think underlying that story is often this attitude of sort of, well, why don't you just get over it or why don't you just move?

I think that kind of ignores the history and the complexity, and it often ignores all of the people who are working really hard to make what's next for that community.

Jeffrey Brown: Laura Zabel heads Springboard for the Arts, a Minnesota organization that helps artists and organizations in both urban and rural areas and puts on the summit.

Where do you see the arts fitting in? What's the role of arts and artists?

Laura Zabel: They sort of have this ability to make meaning from -- sometimes from the really hard parts of what it means to live in a rural community right now.

And I think that's necessary for a community to move forward, that, rather than just telling people, get over it, people need outlets for their pain and their shame and their joy.

Jeffrey Brown: The summit focuses on the practical side of succeeding in rural areas: There are consultations for legal aid, economic planning and career advice.

With a dream of being a professional dancer, Molly Johnston left her hometown of Battle Lake, Minnesota, with a population of less than 1,000, for college in Philadelphia.

She remembers thinking she wouldn't return until retirement.

Molly Johnston: I was the first one out of town after graduation ready to explore the world.

Jeffrey Brown: But family and lifestyle pulled her back to Battle Lake. The problem? How to make it work as a dancer.

Molly Johnston: I'm creating opportunities that didn't exist in the first place. So it's not like I...

Jeffrey Brown: In what sense? I mean, explain that to me.

Molly Johnston: Well I mean, there's no dance studio in Battle Lake, for instance, so I can't just like walk in and be like, hey, I have my master's in dance. Can you give me a job and a weekly paycheck?

Jeffrey Brown: So she and a colleague created their own organization, DanceBARN Collective, to put on a festival and give opportunities to those living in rural communities.

She also teaches dance classes to make ends meet.

Molly Johnston: We're becoming part of our town's makeup, that when they see that DanceBARN is doing a pop-up show at the bar on Thursday night, people show up. I think that's something really beautiful and surprising about living in a rural town.

Jeffrey Brown: Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux came to the summit with a different perspective, as mayor of Grand Marais, Minnesota, a small town of about 1,300 people that sits on Lake Superior near the Canadian border.

It's a town that's long valued the arts, he says, but is now making them part of its planning and policies, like incorporating artists and creative design into the reconstruction of a local highway.

Jay Arrowsmith Decoux: The idea is that if you can at least consider art when you're working on any policy, then you won't create barriers to the development of art in your community.

Jeffrey Brown: Everyone here acknowledges the challenges of making a life in art in a small town: earning enough income, housing, finding an audience.

Amber Buckanaga: There's a lot of this that is really -- that's uncomfortable for us.

Jeffrey Brown: Amber Buckanaga has faced those and other challenges firsthand. A member of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa, she lives in East Lake, on the reservation, and works as a fashion designer, incorporating traditional patterns into contemporary clothing.

But lack of access to proper equipment and technology are a constraint. The Wi-Fi in her area, she says, isn't even worth paying for.

Amber Buckanaga: We do have those challenges. And then on top of us being indigenous people, it becomes more challenging.

The access that these that the non-indigenous population has to, like, arts spaces and resources, it just -- it's there right in front of them, and it comes to them, and people feel more comfortable inviting them to those things. So...

Jeffrey Brown: You don't have that network.

Amber Buckanaga: No. No, we just don't have that.

Jeffrey Brown: Here in Grand Rapids, where the massive paper mill and the crucial timber industry have struggled, an arts community has blossomed.

There's a gallery and small shops, pop-ups in the beautifully-restored old school house, an art walk on the first Friday of each month. And jazz guitarist Sam Miltich, a full-time musician, is a regular at the VFW. With grants from a state sales tax fund for arts and culture, he's able to bring musicians from urban areas to play with him in Grand Rapids.

Miltich says he feels a sense of mission.

Sam Miltich: I think someone dubbed the term jazz ambassador of the north or some such thing. You know, and I have always...

Jeffrey Brown: Which you embrace?

Sam Miltich: Which I embrace.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Sam Miltich: And I have always felt, I think it's a little bit of an equity thing, where I always have felt that rural people are every bit as deserving of art as any other group, and maybe more so, because they don't have as much access to it. So it's about providing access.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

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