The word infrastructure can take on many different meanings depending on the context in which it’s used. Most often the term refers to roads, bridges, utilities, and other tangible systems and structures critical to the operation of a city, state, or region. But there’s also “civic infrastructure,” a term used to describe anything from libraries and public spaces to the civil society groups, clubs, and local nonprofits that facilitate community life. A town or region’s arts and culture scene would be another important piece of that civic and social infrastructure.

When it comes to government funding and public investment, traditional infrastructure usually takes precedence, understandably. The arts and other civic infrastructure can be seen as less essential when it comes to deciding budget priorities. But a number of places across rural America are showing how investments in the arts can pay dividends. In their cases, rural arts funding created not only social and cultural benefits but also made a positive impact on economic development and municipal governance.

Graphic journalist Nhatt Nichols has more on these creative approaches to rural arts funding and the projects they made possible, below.

a pair of illustrated comic panels showing a rural bridge and a manufacturing facility with text that reads, When it comes to government spending on rural places, arts funding often takes a back seat to infrastructure and agriculture. But some rural areas have found that funding the arts can increase economic security and encourage civic engagement and interdependence in their community. Like many small towns, North Adams, Massachusetts struggled economically after its largest employer, The Sprague Electric Plant, closed in 1985, leaving behind a complex of empty industrial buildings from the late 1800s.
an illustrated comic panel shows a large exhibit hall in a museum with text that reads, Those buildings were a perfect match to build an art museum that could house large-scale works that wouldn't fit elsewhere.
an illustrated comic panel shows the exterior of the MASS MoCA Museum with text that reads, Through hard work and a state grant of $35 million, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened in 1999.
a pair of illustrated comic panels showing a historic movie theater marquee and a small-town main street with text that reads, By 2002 MASS MoCA had created 77 jobs and according to the Center for Creative Communities (C3), influenced the creation of 150 jobs by other local businesses, mainly in the tourism and hospitality sectors. In 2017, C3 found that the impact of MASS MoCA increased local economic output by almost $51 million. Though a great deal of private and government funding contributes to the ongoing success of MASS MoCA, without the initial seed money to convert the electrical plant into a world-class art museum, none of the economic stability this institution has brought to North Adams would be possible.
an illustrated comic panel shows a woman painting on a large canvas, with text that reads, MASS MoCA brings economic stability to the area in multiple ways; it also helps local artists sustainably build their careers and a sense of community through its program Assets4Artists.
an illustrated comic panel shows two women talking across a table with text that reads, This program provides professional development through one-on-one coaching and tools that help artists plan sustainable careers, manage their personal finances, build project budgets, and apply for grants.
a pair of illustrated comic panels show Blair Benjamin, director of Assets4Artists at MASS MoCA and a main business corridor in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. A quote from Benjamin reads, "It's unusual for a museum to do that level of work supporting individual arts. So I'd say we're a bit atypical. A contemporary art museum would certainly benefit local artists, but we provide local artists with things outside the normal operations of a museum. We focus on helping artists build community; we've found that what makes artists more sustainable is how they build relationships with each other." Text reads, Government arts funding doesn't just benefit the local economy and artists. In Fergus Falls, Minnesota the community has seen a boost in civic engagement from a one-of-a-kind type of state arts funding.
an illustrated comic panel shows picnic benches in a green space along a river, with text that reads, Though the city doesn't have a specific budget for funding art, Fergus Falls has benefitted from the state's "Legacy Amendment." Following a statewide referendum approved by voters, it increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent and directed that money toward protecting drinking water, funding trails and parks, and providing support for the arts.
an illustrated comic panel shows a map of Minnesota with Fergus Falls highlighted and text that reads, This state-level funding is redistributed to regional nonprofits across the state, including the regional Lakes Region Arts Council (LRAC), which funds art for public good based on local needs in Fergus Falls.
An illustrated comic panel shows Maxine Adams, LRAC chair with a quote that reads, "When the Legacy Amendment passed, it included the ability for us to fund individual artists to bring the arts to everybody in Minnesota. Artists have to show it's either going to increase access to the arts, provide education about the arts, or have something to do with the cultural heritage of arts in Minnesota."
an illustrated comic panel shows a pair of hands using a pottery wheel to form a piece of clay into a pot, with text that reads, By funding the arts regionally, Minnesota can provide the best support for rural areas with very different needs. For example, this direct support funded a potter who visited a long term care facility and taught residents how to build pots. The funding helped a working artist and created a chance to make art for a group of people who otherwise wouldn't be able to experience this kind of craft.
LRAC doesn't just offer direct funding; they also provide office space to Springboard for the Arts, a nonprofit that has sought new ways for arts to engage with civic life. Springboard receives funding from national grants like the National Endowment for the Arts, but they've also partnered with local funding bodies to create smaller grants that have a significant impact.
an illustrated comic panel shows Michele Anderson, the Rural Director for Springboard for the Arts, with a quote that reads, "I think a lot about the importance of experiencing joy together as a community and how the arts can help you have hard conversations."
An illustrated comic panel shows a stately municipal building with text that reads, Fergus Falls has seen real change through small artist-led projects that rely on partnering with local governments. Michele knows that government staff in rural places are often stretched too thin dealing with other issues to find time to prioritize the arts. That's where Springboard can help.
An illustrated comic panel shows Springboard's Michele Anderson with a quote that reads, "Fergus Falls was doing this huge downtown project to revitalize our downtown and reorient towards the river. And they were doing the traditional mechanisms of getting community input: surveys and open houses. We went parallel to their work and had a project called the Year of Play, which invited artists to do projects that inspired joy, play, and fun downtown."
An illustrated comic panel shows a small group congregating in an improvised park space with text that reads, "They gave several artists $1,000 and the chance to do different projects that showed local people what their town could look like. Jake Krohn, Molly Johnston, and Mary Welcome had been following the government's plans and noticed pushback around the removal of parking lots and other changes to public infrastructure.
an illustrated comic panel shows Springboard's Michele Anderson under string lights with text that reads, In response to the pushback, they made a temporary park called the People's Park next to the river, put up some astroturf, some logs for seating, some board games, and twinkle lights. They left it up for a summer to show people spending time downtown what it would feel like to have that green space next to the river. A quote from Anderson reads, "We now have a park next to the river five years later. I think it shows that you can look at diagrams and surveys, but to physically get to experience an idea being proposed to the community and feel what it might be is a lot more effective."

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