Thriving Arts: Thriving Small Communities

Sharon Rodning Bash

2006, 27 pages. Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, 2324 University Avenue West, Suite 114, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55114, 651-645-0402,

Download pdf at The Bush Foundation website

"Harmony is not an arts destination. We seek the arts at the core of everyday lives. We simply want a more solid community, a well-rounded community, beauty in our lives." — Paula Michel, Harmony Arts Council

A smorgasbord of traditional foot-stomping dance tunes in the Norwegian-American style is drifting through the evening air from Selvig Park gazebo in Harmony, Minnesota. It's a balmy evening on the prairie, reminiscent of an earlier era when Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose childhood home was nearby, might have been a part of the celebration. Little imagination is needed to take you back to another era: Old Order Amish farmers and their families are in town with their buggies and bonnets, joining the picnic and selling candies and preserves. Wednesdays throughout the summer the community gathers for this flourishing Music in the Park concert series.

“Welcome to Harmony!” says a brief pocket guide to the arts. “A great place to visit, an even better place to live.” A place where you are invited to experience “a bit of harmony in your life.” Whatever the season, you will find in Harmony both a thriving community and thriving arts. A few highlights that the guide offers include:

  • 2006 is the sixth year for the Studio Art Tour; one can drive the winding back roads and find exquisite artwork in the hills and valleys of the Bluff Country. Year-round the Clover Art Gallery features artwork of local and regional artists. Be sure to visit Austin's Angora Goat Farm where mohair creations of the finest artistry are created “from the hoof up.” Stop in and discover treasures for a lifetime. And meet the goats.
  • Fine arts and crafts of Amish artisans are found at the Village Depot, home to the largest selection of handmade Amish quilts in the Midwest. The various quilted items, fine basketry and woodworking of the Old Order Amish, are superb in workmanship and unsurpassed in beauty.
  • If you should come for the Fourth of July, you can combine your old fashioned Fourth celebration with the annual wood carvers' show at Slim's Woodshed. Or come for the annual woodcarvers' workshop, to develop your skills under the direction of master carvers from throughout the Midwest. Depending on the timing of your visit you may also find the ecumenical choir festival, the community theater in production, or a community band event.

Harmony (pop. 1,000) lies in southeastern Minnesota, 130 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul and about 50 miles from any larger community. What led to the remarkable arts presence in Harmony?

In 2004-05, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, with the support of the Bush Foundation, conducted field research to answer the question, “Are critical ingredients or common themes necessary to build long-term vitality for the arts in rural and exurban communities?” The study sought to understand how arts activities affect, and are affected by, other aspects of community life. Ten communities with populations from 1,000 to 6,000 residents in rural and exurban Minnesota were selected for study. A literature review was com-pleted. In addition, a year of interviews, reading of the local press, and focus-group activity in each of the ten communities were completed. The study identified five key ingredients to developing an “arts-active” community:

  • Underlying social context — attitudes and values that are grounded in an acceptance of differences, a welcoming openness, and a grounded pride of place

There was widespread recognition that arts experiences can enhance a sense of belonging and of place, and can strengthen social cohesion. In communities characterized by greater levels of cultural diversity, arts bridged differences and encouraged reconciliation in instances of conflict.

  • Informal and community-based arts — a valuing of arts in everyday life

Work that validates and builds upon the informal arts is work that will expand the base of participation in the arts. As the entry point for most individuals, recurring activities such as community choirs, bands, and youth “garage bands” are invaluable in instill-ing arts appreciation and lifelong artistic expression.

  • Leadership with a broad vision for cultural development and an empowering style

The study highlighted characteristics of arts leadership crucial to cultural development. Leaders in arts-active communities are: 1) able to attract a critical mass of supporters, 2) connected to the larger structures of community influence, and 3) skilled at building coalitions with other civic entities.

  • Social networks — integration into the larger structures of community life

For some, the arts provide an amenity for visitors and thus contribute to the economic vitality of the town. For others, the arts are valued primarily for personal enjoyment and for the enhancement of the overall quality of community life. In the most arts-active communities, the arts bring people together in ways not otherwise offered within their community life.

  • Support for infrastructure development

Some communities have benefited greatly from the creation of a formal body for arts coordination. Communities that invested in cultural planning and/or the development of an arts council realized demonstrable growth as an “arts-active community.”

Sharon Rodning Bash is program director, Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.