Arts and Economic Development in Small Towns

About the Author

CED Guest Author

Will Lambe is the Director of the Community & Economic Development Program and the Community-Campus Partnership.

Following the Institute for Emerging Issues Forum on Creativity (discussed in a previous post), we have had several inquiries about the role of arts in economic development, especially in small towns and rural areas. Traditional economic development tends to focus on export based industries that bring new dollars into the community. Tourism strategies focus on providing services or amenities that attract outside dollars, not necessarily with regard to local preferences (think, for example, South of the Border in Dillon, SC). So, what about arts-based strategies? Can arts-based strategies be conceived as increasing the local export base (either through tourism or direct sale outside the community)? Are there other factors to consider? This post will summarize one compelling argument for arts-based economic development in rural communities and conclude with resources for local practitioners and policy makers.

Ann Markusen from the University of Minnesota offers a strong argument and empirical evidence supporting the notion that arts-based economic development can drive growth and development, especially in small towns and rural areas. Markusen argues that arts-based strategies can attract outside dollars and alter local consumption toward local products. She suggests local spending on arts and cultural amenities is not reducible to import substitution (local people spending money on goods and services that would have been purchased elsewhere). Rather, arts-based strategies can be conceived as part of a ‘consumption-base’ approach to local development in which local residents shift spending toward more locally-produced items and services. “Providing better local cultural and entertainment opportunities for people can divert the consumer dollar from expenditures for travel elsewhere or trips to large shopping malls to buy imported goods, to local expenditures (source).” Markusen illustrates the consumption-base theory with the following anecdote:

“The insight that changes in local consumption patterns can dramatically spur small town development has come to me over the years in observing a Native American casino near my family home in northern Minnesota. Built on an inter-state freeway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, and originally aimed at tourists, the Fond du Lac casino chiefly attracts non-Indian people from the surrounding counties who enjoy the activity, sociability, and good food available, an alternative to the sour-smelling bars and greasy-spoon restaurants in their communities. People who would otherwise drive farther, to Duluth for instance, to spend their discretionary incomes on purchases of durable goods like TVs, new cars, and other household items, are instead deferring consumption of such imports to spend time at the casino multiple times a week. They may not spend much per visit, but it adds up. With their profits, the Fond du Lac Ojibwe tribe has built a beautiful community college (that serves both Indians and non-Indians), a K-12 school, and a community center; it is diversifying into gas stations; and it is buying up land the reservation lost in former decades to questionable land deals. The casino, a labor-intensive activity, has provided jobs for many people, Indian and non-Indian.” (source)

Case studies profiling small towns that practice arts-based economic development are available here:

  • Colquitt, Georgia: Uses the arts as a tool for community empowerment and economic diversification. The success of a community-based performing arts project has resulted in extensive downtown revitalization and economic development.
  • Fairfield, Iowa: After losing Parsons College, the town’s economic anchor, civic leaders in Fairfield take a risk and sell the campus to an alternative California university. The leads to unique town-gown relations and ultimately plays a role in Fairfield’s rich diversity, strong civic infrastructure (including art studios and performing arts venues) and pioneering entrepreneurial networks.
  • Nelsonville, Ohio: Civic leaders in this historic coal mining community subsidize downtown storefront rent for artist-retailers. Over a period of five years, artists clean up downtown storefronts and bring the town’s downtown square back into economic productivity.
  • New York Mills, Minnesota: This town invests in the creative energy of rural artists. Through a regional cultural center, New York Mills attracts outside talent and energy, bringing fresh perspective on the community’s challenges and opportunities.

For more detailed case studies, readers may refer to a book of case studies by Ann Markusen on developing artists’ centers to revitalize communities.

Will Lambe authored the NC Rural Center report, Small Towns, Big Ideas, and he served as Director of the Community and Economic Development Program at the School of Government from 2009 to 2014.

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