Rural Iowans eager to engage art in their communities

Cold temperatures and snow showers didn’t keep rural community leaders off the roads Thursday. Opportunities to learn firsthand about grant funds linking art projects and revitalization don’t happen every day.

About 100 people, at least half from smaller communities, traveled to Iowa City for the last of four Iowa meetings hosted by ArtPlace America. a New York-based organization that issues grant money through the National Creative Placemaking Fund.

Cat Nelson, facility manager at the Washington Community Center, and Kadie Dennison, development and marketing manager at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, were among the roughly 100 people who traveled to Iowa City to learn more about grant money that helps infuse the arts in community development projects. ArtPlace America hosted the Iowa City meeting on Dec. 8, 2016, it was the last of four informational sessions on the National Creative Placemaking Fund that were held around the state. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

“Part of our mission at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center is to enhance the quality of life and to improve the economic vitality of Fairfield and Jefferson County,” said Kadie Dennison, manager of development and marketing at the Center. “Any way that we can bring more money into to fulfill that mission, to impact lives, we want to know more.”

Cat Nelson, facility manager at the Washington Community Center, which is home to the Washington Community Theater, said she made the trip because her “life is theater art.”

“A member of the Iowa City theater community told me about this, saying it was an chance to bring more money for art into Iowa,” Nelson said. “I didn’t know much more than that, didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I needed to come and find out.”

Rural organizations, the women explained, don’t always have the resources needed to travel to out-of-state venues in order to learn more about grant opportunities.

“This was free, and it was close by. It was an awesome and cost-effective opportunity to get this information firsthand,” Dennison said.

F. Javier Torres, director of national grantmaking at ArtPlace, gave his organization’s definition of creative placemaking: “Projects that are focused on community planning and development, and that leverage or deploy arts and culture to create place-based change.”

The concept of art as a tool for revitalization and development was new to some attendees, old hat to others, and Torres says that’s typical. Overall, he’s been impressed with both Iowans’ interest in the fund and the complexity of the questions they’ve posed. Winning projects engage the entire community in a collaborative process that often forces people to think in different ways.

“You can’t just copy and paste from previous winning applicants,” Torres said. “Each community is unique — its own set of problems, it’s own path to solutions. This isn’t money for commissioning a statue for the local park, although that could be part of a larger project.”

Applicants need to research how arts and culture can help solve ongoing transportation, economic development, workforce or other issues. And they need to be able to articulate how and why their plan can only be effective or successful with that art or cultural component.

F. Javier Torres, director of national grantmaking at ArtPlace America, leads participants at an Iowa City meeting through the application process for grants from the National Creative Placemaking Fund. The Iowa City meeting, one of four across the state, took place on Dec. 8, 2016 at the parks and recreation facility on S. Gilbert St. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

And while competition is fierce — only a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,500 applicants receive funding each year — the funding is generous. Grants range from $50,000 to $500,000, averaging $325,000. Made possible through a collaboration of many national foundations, money provided through the National Creative Placemaking Fund can be used for any aspect of an approved project.

Better news for rural Iowans is that ArtPlace earmarks half its money for geographic areas with a population of 50,000 or less. Even so, the logistics of developing a plan and subsequent application can be challenging.

The economics of community art, especially theater art, in small towns is thin, the women from Fairfield and Washington explained. Entertainment brought into a small community rarely can pay for itself through ticket sales alone, and that can, in turn, limit the scope of what the sponsoring organization can accomplish beyond the show itself. When balancing the production books is a challenge, it can be difficult to think about the type of larger, collaborative projects that fall under the heading of placemaking.

“But at the same time, when the business community or the educational community talks about quality of life, they’re talking about us,” Nelson added. “When they ask about quality of life, they’re asking if there are shows and other opportunities for entertainment, things to see and to do.”

Bringing those opportunities to rural areas takes money, and incorporating art and culture into community development takes time. Both are in short supply.

Just like other small town nonprofits, rural art and cultural organizations rarely have large staffs and often rely on volunteers to keep everything running smoothly. And the other community groups they partner with are often in the same workforce boat.

At the end of the meeting, both women had ideas, but neither was sure about applying for a grant.

“We partner with the city, the tourism office, Chamber of Commerce, local businesses and others to do what we do. So I think this is a good opportunity to take this knowledge back to those partners” so that they can be aware that this exists and there might be more we can do, Dennison said.

Nelson agreed, noting that she thought she was the only person from Washington to attend.

“I want to ask our partners if they have any big ideas that might fit. It will be the start of a new conversation, information we didn’t have before and we’ll see where it goes from there,” she said.

In terms of receiving national funding for placemaking activities, Iowans haven’t been very successful. Only one ArtPlace grant has come into the state, for the ongoing ImaginArt in the Alleys project in Marion. And there have been only two federal placemaking grants — one in Dubuque and the other a regional project to connect scenic byways.

I’ve long lamented the lack of existing collaborations as part of the issue, and have had many leaders in more urban areas give that theory a nod. But after speaking with rural leaders on Thursday, I’m wondering if there might be more the state, through the Iowa Arts Council, or other cultural leaders can do.

Research shows creative placemaking works. It can revitalize communities, bring a sense of ownership and place to residents as well as entice tourism and other development. It can help existing residents come together and view their communities from a different perspective, especially in times of change or crisis.

But our rural communities can only access those benefits through monetary investments, and they can only ask for support when they are aware of funding pools.

We have several state and regional organizations that look after the economic health of various towns and regions. They help research and write grant proposals for a wealth of infrastructure needs — a vital resource for communities where government leaders are spread too thin.

Perhaps it’s time to expand the roles of those organizations, to bring on staff that specifically view arts and culture as a necessary cog in the community development wheel.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally appeared in The Gazette on December 11, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette