How NEA Funding Revived a Rural Town in Minnesota

When Fergus Falls, MN lost its main industry, Springboard for the Arts stepped in, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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May 15 2017, 8:30pm

Photo by Rick Abbott. All photos courtesy Springboard for the Arts

Like Appalachia and coal mining, the community of Fergus Falls, MN was shaped by and dependent on a single-industry economy. For over a century the Kirkbride Asylum, a massive state-run mental health facility, operated on 750,000 square feet, or roughly thirteen football fields, of vacant space in the small, rural community of 13,000 people. Generations of Fergus Falls families were connected to the institution, whether through employment or admittance. Its presence was a socioeconomic anchor for the town, until it closed in 2009 in the midst of the national recession, precipitating a drastic decline in the local economy. By 2011, unemployment rates hit 9%, the population was thinning, and Kirkbride sat empty, its status uncertain.

"Our goal was to change the conversation from what had become a very oppositional 'we have to tear it down' / 'we can't tear it down' conversation, to a conversation about what else is possible; what do we want for the community?" Laura Zabel, Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, tells Creators. Springboard is a local artist-run community and economic development organization in Fergus Falls that has been working tirelessly to bolster arts and culture as a means of economic development, and Kirkbride is a central part of their plan. They recently launched an artist residency on its grounds and have used the space as a catalyst for engaging the community in the arts through public programs and festivals.

Blayze Buseth is one of the many local artists impacted by Springboards presence. He was in high school when he took his first class there—a course called Business: Work of Art, designed to help artists learn the business aspects of making a living as a professional artist. The series is tailored to artists in rural communities, teaching them how to market their work nationally and internationally, thereby generating enough revenue to continue living local as full-time artists. Springboard helped Buseth source and secure a community-funded loan, which he used to launch his studio and his business creating and selling custom monuments. "We're lucky to have this place where artists can stop in and get directed toward what their mission is," Buseth says.

Springboard is playing a central role in reimagining urban and rural exchange through the arts by inserting creativity into every aspect of a community. Their projects have gained national recognition and have been replicated across the country. Like other organizations that Creators has reported on, they are ensuring protection for grassroots arts networks in the face of a vulnerable National Endowment for the Arts and a shrinking arts funding landscape, while also highlighting the effect that art has on rural economies.

When Springboard opened their satellite office in Fergus Falls (their main branch is located in St. Paul, MN) in 2011, at the height of the community's economic struggles, it did so with seed money provided by the NEA. Six years later, the Fergus Falls unemployment rate has dropped to 4% while its population has grown by 3.9%. While national factors contribute to this economic boost, Springboard's active engagement in community arts has created a cornerstone for the Fergus Falls economy to build upon, filling the void left by the closure of the mental hospital. "We work to build on the [creative] assets that are in a place, establishing reciprocity between a community and its artists, and helping people see how much opportunity is there by working together," Zabel explains. Through community partnerships, Springboard has leveraged their initial $25,000 NEA grant into $1.2 million in private arts funding, providing a testament to both the power of the NEA and the untapped potential to garner support for rural communities through the arts. Springboard's work is a beacon for the future of grassroots arts in a divided America.

To learn more about Springboard for the Arts, visit their website.

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