Young Artists in Small Towns: Contexts of Creativity
I live in a small town, I am an artist, and I am young.
In my work helping other artists with their careers, I spend a lot of time thinking about the types of resources younger artists need in rural communities. For the most part, this means just what you would expect: developing or identifying ways to help them find funding, sell their work, or learn new skills. But I also want to think more deeply than that: What kind of unique resources might actually motivate young artists to create art in the first place, be connected to their community and stick around to provide the strong, innovative leadership that small towns need right now?
In other words, what are the conditions of creativity and talent development in a small town, and how does this affect the $100 million-dollar question of rural America: Why do our young people stay or go?
Here at Springboard for the Arts' rural office, working with and encouraging younger artists has become a priority. Last Saturday, we led a day-long creative placemaking workshop on the role of art in historic preservation and economic development as part of our Imagine Fergus Falls initiative. Much to our surprise and delight, this workshop attracted a powerhouse of young artists from the region, most of whom had never met one another before.
Their presence completely changed the energy and dynamics of the difficult and complex conversation about historic preservation issues in our community. It gave the other generations in the room, including the Mayor, our Economic Improvement Commission director, and several established artists, all of whom have an intimate history with the building (either from working at the hospital or having family members as patients there) a chance to tell their story to fresh eyes and ears. It was especially amazing to see these young artists stay after the workshop, talking and laughing for hours with other participants, and to realize that we can do something very simple but powerful by creating a space for creative dialogue and the possibility for artists to meet and connect.
That same night, I made my way over to a special opening of a small new music studio in town called The Space Station. These amazing musicians recently received significant support from the Lake Region Arts Council, (thanks to Minnesota's transformational Legacy amendment) and are now well on their way to establishing this space as a vibrant music venue for Fergus Falls young musicians and their fans. The energy in the air at this event was exhilarating because of the intimacy and the focus on great music. I am so proud of our local arts council for recognizing the vision of this project and for taking the risk on a rather untraditional grant for our region.
It was truly a weekend of young artists taking control of their own story here in Fergus Falls. Speaking from my own personal journey of being a young creative leader here, it's important to recognize that this energy has been building because of the trust and connection from our older generation of leaders here. I want to see more of this, both here and in other small towns.
In her enchanting lecture about stewardship and talent development, Ruth Little says, "We are only talented in a context. We have as much to gain by generating potent contexts for individuals and groups as we have by scouting for talent like prospectors." With this in mind, I believe that one reason our young artists have been attracted to our creative placemaking workshops is that these workshops help them put their art in a context, and they provide an inviting space to think and talk about their own personal stakes within a larger community development issue.
When we think of resources, we don't always think about creating context for talent development. But that is my hope for the future of artist support and development, especially in small towns, and especially for our young creative people. So here are some thoughts on what that might look like for you if you are a leader in a small town, and interested in the same thing:
Be intentional about creating leadership positions for us.
Invite us to serve on your board better yet, hire us onto your staff and give us real responsibility. If you cannot do that, bring us to a city or arts council meeting (just like church, it's less intimidating when you're with someone who knows how it works). Encourage us to speak up. Nominate a young person to fill one of the hundreds of invitations to serve on an advisory board or committee crowding your inbox. Let us make mistakes and help us learn from them.
If we want to try something new
Try not to tell us exactly how you would do it, ask us questions about how we are thinking about doing it instead. Connect us to people that will help us learn more about our new idea. Share or lend us something you've read that has inspired your own work and talk to us about it over coffee or a beer.
If we want to try something that's been done before
Try not to make us feel guilty for not having the same historical memory of past initiatives as the more established artists and leaders in the community. Of course, let us know if something has been tried before, but don't shut us down completely even if the last time it was tried it was a failure. You might scare us away forever. Look at our enthusiasm as an asset, not a threat. And even if it sounds the same as something that's been done before, consider that it might actually be very, very different.
Set aside resources specifically for artists under 35.
If you're in a position to do so, consider creating a grant program, workshop or fellowship specifically for young artists in small communities. Find ways to help young artists find each other and incentivize collaboration, so that we can deepen our relationships with one another. We tend to stay committed to a place when we feel like we are part of something bigger.
Are you a young artist living in a small community? What resources would you like to see where you live? What or who is already out there that has helped or inspired you, and kept you in the community?