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Starkville Arts Festival
Oktibbeha County, MS
Photo: Frank Peters
Imagining a vibrant arts culture, most people think SoHo not silo. But a new reality has emerged since the 1990s, according to the Economic Research Service. Tim Wojan writes that “increasingly, the arts are concentrating in other, less populated areas throughout the country, including small, completely rural counties.”
Wojan has found, too, that the profile of rural arts locales is changing. While in the ’90s, rural painters, potters, and designers tended to gather in high amenity recreation areas (like the Rockies) over the past decade, new artist communities are blossoming in less glamourous places: like Riley, Kansas; Bayfield, Wisconsin; and Oktibbeha, Mississippi.
Wojan stresses that the rural arts phenomenon is “not widespread.” Rather, artists have tended to congregate in a few “select” rural communities. Generally, these non-metro bohemias are far from urban centers. But Wojan writes, “The single characteristic most strongly associated with rural arts magnets in 1990 and 2000 was the ability to retain college-educated workers.”
Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, is one such “select” rural area with high numbers of performers, entertainers, and artists. In the east-central region of the state, it’s located about 120 miles from both the state capital, Jackson, and Birmingham, AL, far enough away from any city to muster its own cultural identity and dynamism. In keeping with Wojan’s conclusions about rural arts hubs, Oktibbeha is home to Mississippi State University, and so is institutionally equipped to retain (and to create) educated people.
The university’s spinoffs to the arts community are immeasurable. There’s a well-paid pool of trained fine artists here (the faculty) as well as a stream of visiting artists who pour through the county, to challenge and invigorate the community. Just one example: this past spring MSU brought photographer and conceptual artist Sandy Skoglund to the campus to give a lecture and create an arts installation.
But the university’s not all there is to it. Beyond MSU itself, Starkville residents have organized what appears to be an enormously busy local arts council. The group sponsors diverse events throughout the year (currently, it’s presenting “Less than 100 for Less than 100,” a big sale of local artists’ work). The group also organizes trips to museums in the Southeast and supports “emerging artists” with small grants. It also offers two $1000 scholarships to local high school grads who are going on to pursue the arts in college.
award-winning art teacher
of Starkville High School
Perhaps most telling are the schools’ arts commitments and achievements — we’re not talking about Mississippi State, now, but Starkville High School. The district received the historic Bunch House, which was moved to the high school campus to be the art department for the high school (Rural or urban, did your high school have an art class, an “art department,” its own art building?!). The high school’s art teacher, Andrew Lark, was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2003 and has led his students to scores of state and national awards. “Altogether his students have received more than $1.2 million in scholarships.”
Have other rural communities with large state universities had anything like Starkville’s success in building out an art culture, one that attracts and can keep a population of artists? How have counties without local universities managed to become arts meccas? We’d hope to learn the creative secrets of these other rural counties with high numbers of “art and design workers.”
Here are the top fifty rural counties based on the percentage of their workforce employed as artists.
|3||San Juan County||Colorado|
|5||San Miguel County||Colorado|
|8||Taos County||New Mexico|
|13||San Juan County||Washington|
|23||Lincoln County||New Mexico|
|26||Keya Paha County||Nebraska|
|30||Columbia County||New York|
|34||La Plata County||Colorado|
|35||Clay County||South Dakota|
|38||Judith Basin County||Montana|
These are the top fifty rural counties based on the number of artists living there.
|Rank||County||State||Number of Artists|
|6||Beaufort County||South Carolina||740|
|9||Grafton County||New Hampshire||660|
|12||Merrimack County||New Hampshire||654|
|17||Cheshire County||New Hampshire||587|
|19||Columbia County||New York||555|
|20||Davidson County||North Carolina||545|
|24||Grand Traverse County||Michigan||506|
|31||Taos County||New Mexico||461|
|32||Rowan County||North Carolina||450|
|34||Iredell County||North Carolina||448|
|37||Moore County||North Carolina||438|
|42||La Plata County||Colorado||417|
|44||Chautauqua County||New York||413|