The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center is central to an arts revival in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Photo by Rick Abbott

Laura Zabel is the Executive Director for Springboard for the Arts, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that connects artists to communities with hopes of fostering thriving, creative communities and providing resources that help artists make a living. Since 2011, Springboard has worked with Friends of the Kirkbride to put on the annual Kirkbride Arts and History Weekend, an arts festival that celebrates and educates people about the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center. Known better locally as the Kirkbride because it was built in the Kirkbride Plan style, the facility was a mental asylum that operated from 1890 till 2005. We recently spoke with Laura about the role art, and artists, can have in rejuvenating small towns and their economies.

How was the (Kirkbride) festival this year?

It was really wonderful. I’ve been every year and it’s been so interesting to see the participation, the purpose, and the narrative of the festival evolve over that time. This year, I was really struck with some of the things that have changed over time. When we first started the festival, and some of the work around the Kirkbride, it was really focused on the physical structure. The future of the physical structure of the building.

Obviously, that structure still really looms large in the conversation about the community and what the community wants from its future. It’s also been an opportunity, in telling stories about the building and about the ways of the building and the hospital influenced the community. It’s also really helped open up this narrative around mental health and why mental health is such an important part of the culture of Fergus Falls.

Laura Zabel at the Rural Big Ideas Forum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Shawn Poynter/Daily Yonder
Laura Zabel at the Rural Big Ideas Forum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Shawn Poynter/Daily Yonder

This year … I felt I was watching a community have this really nuanced conversation about mental health, mental health treatments, and the intersections between that and what artists can bring in the way that a community tells its story. I feel like it’s not a story that has an ending yet, the future of that building. In this midpoint in the story, there’s some new stuff that has emerged that none of us really anticipated about what that work would surface.

That question of the narrative, and especially a narrative about an industry that isn’t there anymore, whether that’s agriculture, mining, or any number of industries, is a question that a lot of communities have. How to move forward, what’s next? The work that Fergus Falls has done to own that history and to own the complicated, painful, and also joyful and really nuanced parts of that history as part of their culture is a great example for how you can move forward without letting go of that historic foundation. All of the ways that your community was, and continues to be, influenced by a really foundational piece of infrastructure or an industry.

How would you describe the role of the arts to help a community transition from an old, dying economy?

A lot of where our work has focused, and where I see a lot of power in arts and artists, is around the storytelling. Not just a lovely, simple story about the history of the town. To really help people unlock their own stories and express their stories. The very personal ways that they’re connected to that industry and to a sense of place. To that economy.

There’s this intersection between that really fundamental but more metaphoric … piece with the real practical pieces of the economy. How people come together, support local business, and spend money in their local community. My parents came with me this time. It was their first time coming to Fergus Falls. That’s a great example of people who traveled to come and hear that music and be a part of the festival.

I’m really struck in Fergus Falls … when you go into local businesses, restaurants, bars, and the shops downtown, they all have local artists’ work. They have local artists performing, there’s local art on the walls. It just feels like a community that’s really owned it’s cultural identity and really understands those intersections in a way that feels really special to me.

There’s a pretty new pizza restaurant downtown and they’re doing things like having a weekly beer and hymns night. Things that are rooted in the cultural practice of that community but that really recognize that those are the experiences that people want to have that sit at those intersections.

If you go into a new place and they say, “We want to do revitalization with a big arts component,” what’s your advice? Is there a blueprint?

In small and in urban communities, we often want to skip over the human parts of that process.

That’s a place where art can be really useful and beyond just some community response or community engagement meetings in a church basement. Actually having ways and creative outlets for people to actually engage in really meaningful ways is a really necessary part of any kind of community change or any kind of community process. I think it usually gets short shrift. [People] usually want to skip to the building, or the redevelopment, or the new housing, or the branding of the downtown without actually giving citizens and neighbors real ways to participate in that or ways to express their hopes and dreams for the future of their community.

I guess my advice to those folks is to make sure you start at the beginning. Don’t try and leap halfway in to the process. Like I said, that definitely goes for urban folks too. I think that’s a big challenge in community development right now.

Naomi Schliesman’s “What else is possible” sign.

When you were starting that process, how did you all get people involved?

All of this work that we’ve done around the Kirkbride and around the many, many ways that that building, that space, and that history of mental health treatment are connected to the community. All of that started with this really tiny, humble project. An artist named Naomi Schliesman, who actually works at Springboard, made a chalkboard silhouette of the Kirkbride. A really large piece of chalkboard that was shaped like the Kirkbride. We just wrote, “What else is possible?” on it. We invited people to come and write on the chalkboard. We took the chalkboard [around]. It was at the historical society in Fergus Falls and a bunch of other locations downtown. Some people carried it in a parade in the downtown. It really is such a simple thing but that’s really where a lot of it started for us.

A lot of that initial impetus for us was really grounded in this idea that this is a hard conversation. The conversation around the building had become really oppositional about whether to tear it down or not. We just wanted to figure out, is there a way to have a different conversation? Can we talk about what else is possible besides this contentious and unsolvable argument about whether or not we should preserve the building?

I think that did start a different kind of conversation. [It] attracted people who might have felt alienated by that argument. It gave people a different invitation into the conversation that said, “You don’t have to come up with a solution for what we’re going to use this enormous building for. We just want to have a conversation about the future of this place and what people care about and want to see in this place.” From that grew all of these other projects, which lead to an umbrella initiative that we called Imagine Fergus Falls that included the arts and history weekend, that included the play that we did several years ago with fifty community members. A whole crowd of people, 600 people from the community, riding their bikes from scene to scene around the building, art installations on the ground.

All kinds of activities that then grew into this residency program that we have in the former nurses’ dormitory where we have two apartments where artists are staying. Artists were actually the first people to move back onto the grounds since the buildings closed. One of the out buildings has been developed into apartments so we have two apartments there. It grew into that really regular presence and artists creating projects that brought people onto the grounds. Also, a lot of them really were tied to the ideas of mental health, and installations, vacant storefronts.

To the Arts and History weekend, that continued as this touch point, every year, to check back in on what’s happened. To be able to show off work that people in the community have done over the last year. These two really wonderful musicians who’ve produced theses pieces that really speak to some of those issues of identity, and place, and mental health. To me, it all grew out of that chalkboard.

This is me being devil’s advocate, because no matter what you do, there’s always someone who says it won’t work. There are always naysayers. How do you explain to someone that, yes, you can change communities through the arts? How do you convince them that it’s possible?

…For sure there are those naysayers. Just skeptics, too. The best way I’ve found is just to tell the stories of the work and to invite people to experience the work themselves. There’s very little I can say that’s going to magically change your mind. I do see people who have those firsthand experiences change their minds or invest in the work in a different way. In rural communities and in urban communities right now, part of my answer is also, “What do you have to lose?”

The ways that we’ve tried to do community and economic development in under-invested and disinvested communities, both urban and rural, have not worked very well. Let’s try something different. It’s also not a panacea. It’s not an easy fix and we need a lot of different people on board and a lot of different people trying new things and challenging ourselves to try new things. It’s not that I say that it’s going to save your community of fix your neighborhood. We’re in a moment where it’s worth trying and it’s worth using our creative selves and worth working with our creative people to see if we might be able to figure out a different way. A way that’s more supportive of the people who are already there, that builds the social capital that all our communities need, and that can imagine what else is possible in a different way.

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