View of the socially distanced audience from the stage at Barter Theatre’s Moonlight Drive-In. (Photo courtesy of Barter Theatre)

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In Kyle, South Dakota, a new structure is under construction that will be a focal point for indigenous arts and culture on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 8,500 square foot Oglala Lakota Arts Center will provide critically needed room for individual and group studio space, technology for electronic marketplace access, classroom and gallery space, and a recording and sound studio. With ample space for collaboration, it will be a hub connecting arts and cultural activities across the geographically vast reservation.

The center is a partnership among Artspace, a non-profit arts facilities developer; First Peoples Fund, a non-profit Native artist collaborative; and Lakota Funds, a Community Development Financial Institution on Pine Ridge. The facility was designed by Encompass Architects, whose president, Tammy Eagle Bull (Oglala Lakota) is the first Native woman to become a licensed architect. Lakota knowledge of the stars informed the design of the building, making it both support and reflect the artistry of the community. 

These partners have garnered support from national funders like ArtPlace America, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts to establish the center as a foundation for growth of the reservation’s arts economy. 

All across rural America, arts and culture thrives. From live performance venues to church choirs, art fairs to quilting bees, they are a vital part of the fabric of life. The richness of creative endeavors can also drive economic development. 

Nationally, the art and culture sector was 4.5% of the Gross Domestic Product in 2017 and provided over 5 million jobs, according to reports by the National Endowment for the Arts. On a state level, the arts and cultural sector added $72.8 billion to the economies of 18 rural states—i.e., states in which 30 percent or more of the population live in rural areas. 

Additionally, research by the National Endowment for the Arts and the USDA Economic Research Service finds that, since the Great Recession, rural counties that were home to performing arts organizations experienced population growth three times faster than other rural counties. 

“The move towards regenerative economies is really exciting, and arts and culture is core to that,” said Jamie Bennett. Bennett is executive director of ArtPlace America, a national collaborative philanthropic organization. 

Rural arts have accomplished all this while receiving a disproportionately small share of the nation’s cultural funding. While 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas (using the 2010 Census definition), less than 2% of national arts foundation funding supports rural projects, according to a 2017 study by Helicon Collaborative. Even more troubling, the study found that “despite important efforts by many leading foundations, funding overall has gotten less equitable, not more, over the past five years.” 

Historic funding challenges have fostered a mindset of innovation, resilience, and collaboration in rural arts entities. “Most successful cultural organizations are clear and bright about their ethics and aesthetics,” said Bennett. “They make their economic decisions within those parameters.” 

Here are the stories of four rural arts entities discovering funding solutions.

Native Entrepreneurship: First People’s Fund in He Sapa (the Black Hills, South Dakota)

The First People’s Fund works to restore and reclaim indigenous knowledge and rebuild the local economy by supporting and nurturing tribal communities’ culture bearers. 

President Lori Pourier explains the foundation of their work. “Our knowledge keepers have experienced everything that was extracted from us: land, health care, boarding schools, Superfund projects, failed manufacturing. They have seen the other economic models that didn’t work. That is why our work is rooted and grounded in the culture bearers.”

The Fund lifts up emerging artists. A 2009 study showed that over half of the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation are involved in home businesses, and 79% of those are in the arts. But only 40% of emerging artists in Native communities report household incomes more than $10,000.  Of artists involved in workshops and trainings like those offered by First People’s Fund, 90% have incomes above that threshold.

The core of the fund’s work is business and leadership development for artisans. In the year-long fellowship, 25 emerging artists are paired with experienced mentors in a Native entrepreneurship model. Graduates form connections with artists from similar geographical areas and creative disciplines and many go on to teach the new skills to others in their communities.

First People’s Fund Rolling Rez Arts bus (Photo courtesy of First People’s Fund)

One of the strengths of First People’s Fund’s model is weaving together partnerships. Both Native Community Development Financial Institutions and the nine Great Plains tribal colleges lend their expertise, space, and resources. National philanthropic partners contribute to the work. Together, they have created Rolling Rez Arts, a mobile art classroom, bank, and business training center. It strengthens the creative economy by providing access to education and financial services for the far-flung artisans on the Pine Ridge reservation.

“It is a balance,” said Pourier about their work, “between a business model for our artists and that heart space based on centuries of ancient knowledge and reciprocal relationships.”

Pandemic Pivot: Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia

Barter Theatre is one of the two oldest theater companies in the United States and produces 25 shows a year. This March, staff realized they couldn’t safely and profitably stay inside their theater for the near future. One of their innovations was renovating, with community partners, a derelict drive-in movie theater as their Covid home. 

Barter collects 70% of their income from ticket sales. They also bring 145,000 people into their town of 8,000 annually, generating millions of dollars for restaurants, accommodations, and shops. Closing did not seem to be an option, for the theater or the community. 

Their ingenuity has kept the theater going and has had some silver linings they didn’t expect. Patrons who had never been to their indoor productions have flocked to the Moonlight Drive-in, with 46% of their summer audience being new. “It is more approachable,” says Katy Brown, producing artistic director.  “People come in their pajamas.”

As colder weather approaches, Barter is making creative plans to stay open as a drive in. They envision a winter wonderland of activities. Audience members will then retreat to their cars for the show, with sound piped in and the actors projected on the big screen.

The challenge of this time has given Brown a new appreciation for the story of the theater’s founding during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, a group of hard-up actors from New York City hitchhiked to Virginia and literally bartered their art for food, charging 40 cents or an equal amount of vegetables. The first year, they brought in less than $5 but collectively gained over 300 pounds. 

“It was founded during really hard times,” says Brown. “Their desperation and resiliency have really hit home this year.”

Social Enterprise: Clear Creek Creative in Rockcastle County, Kentucky

Clear Creek Creative in Rockcastle is the creative and cultural and work of Carrie Brunk and Bob Martin. Brunk and Martin operate as a social enterprise: They are incorporated as an LLC, with a mission to do good in the world. They take the income from their facilitation and teaching artist contract work and reinvest it in their artistic and cultural work.

Because of their status as a for-profit, Clear Creek Creative has freedom to tap different streams of funding. For example, they received federal renewable energy business grants to construct infrastructure at their off-grid homestead and production grounds. They can gain access grant funding by partnering with aligned non-profits to serve as fiscal sponsor if needed.

Their current major cultural project is Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man, a production and experience that challenges the domination mentality through the lens of fracking development. While they have previously received state and regional support, Ezell has attracted grant funding attention to a level they haven’t experienced before.

One of those is The National Theater Project Grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts. Clear Creek is the first project they have supported in Kentucky and the only rural recipient this year. “This program is specifically conscious about looking to rural areas,” says Brunk. “It is one of the few doing it on the national landscape.” 

Clear Creek Creative knows they cannot count on this level of funding long-term; their strategy is to stay nimble by staying small. They also draw on their community members and resources. “Many organizations exist in a scarcity mindset. We have sought to build a different orientation,” says Brunk. “We ask ourselves, ‘What do we have in abundance?’”

Bob Martin in Clear Creek Creative’s Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man. (Photo courtesy of Clear Creek Creative)

Grant Access: Springboard for the Arts in Fergus Falls, Minnesota

Springboard for the Arts assists artists with grant processes, professional development, and access to resources. While they seek to foster solidarity between those in their rural and urban programs, their Fergus Falls office, opened in 2011, identifies and serves the unique needs of rural artists. 

When providing grant assistance, Michele Anderson, rural program director, sees several barriers for rural artists. Initially, they usually have less access and experience with technology for writing and submitting the grant. The minimum budget threshold requirements can be too high for rural projects, and the established measures of success don’t translate easily to the rural context. Grant review boards lack sufficient rural representation, people who can view processes through the lens of rural experiences. 

One important resource is the Minnesota State Arts Board. In the last 12 years, the state has tripled arts funding. They are reaching for rural/urban equity with 11 regional arts councils which give rural artists increased access to funds and a greater role in decision-making.

“Arts connect to community development,” said Anderson. “Creativity is the key to navigate challenges. Artists help us talk about serious issues in a playful way.”

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Bennett with ArtPlace America said state art agencies are important resources for supporting rural arts.

“They have a mandate to care about the whole geography of the state,” he said. Collectively, state arts agencies invested $49 million in rural areas in 2017, or 14 percent of their grant dollars, according to the National Governor’s Association. 

These are signs of hope, of collaborations, of innovations, and of people who lovingly and stubbornly work for solutions. It is important. “Artists help communities navigate the past, present, and future in ways that are rich and complex and help us meet the current moment,” said Brunk with Clear Fork Creative. “Every community deserves to have that.”