Rejection to Re-imagination: A nontraditional cultural district story

Posted by John Davis, Feb 02, 2015 5 comments

Failure. Unanimous rejection. Back to square one. That was the reaction nearly 15 years ago when I first proposed the idea that the entire town of Lanesboro, Minnesota (pop. 754) could be transformed into an arts campus.

Fast forward to today: Lanesboro is now a national model arts community, tourist community, and agricultural community. A scenic town with a river running through it (great for trout), it boasts a historic main street, a bike trail, and a waterfall on the town’s edge.

When I first moved to Lanesboro back in 2000 to take the job of executive director of Lanesboro Arts, nobody was ready to talk about the vision of an entire rural community becoming an arts center—or cultural district, or arts campus. Too fast! Too soon! Which means that real change requires community buy-in, and Lanesboro’s attitude was no different from that of any other American community, small or large.

So what changed?

It required taking a deep breath, reflecting, and looking at initial rejection as an opportunity to think bigger and to re-imagine.

DSCN4274I shifted to a long-term strategy of using the arts both to strengthen the community and to help solve community challenges, giving a focus to the Lanesboro Arts Campus vision. Re-imagining a community involves five basic principles:

  1. Have a clear vision—and actively work to create a shared vision throughout the community.
  2. Stay positive; stay focused.
  3. Think long-term and develop long-term strategies.
  4. Think and act collaboratively—cultivate the support and participation of key community leaders, politicians, and organizations. Collaborative strategies will weave the arts into the fabric of the community.
  5. Be patient.

DSCN1913In developing strategies to integrate the arts community-wide, Lanesboro Arts has worked out of the philosophy that how change is presented is as important as the change itself. We cultivated relationships with the movers and shakers of Lanesboro in the very beginning—the mayor and city administrator, community leaders, civic organizations. These relationships resulted in an agreement to integrate the arts into the values and policies of the community: the Lanesboro Arts Campus is now a shared vision for the city’s future.

John_informationsignThe town’s strategic plan, based on a community-wide survey called Lanesboro 20/20: Envisioning Our Future, recognizes “the growth of a strong arts community” as an asset vital to the community’s success. The plan aims to “encourage the vitality of existing arts programming and seek to develop new artistic visions,” as well as to “implement improvements of infrastructure and build upon Lanesboro’s walkability and friendly community spirit.” Building on this shared vision, the arts as a change agent now fits into the context of community strategic planning and serves a vital civic purpose as well.

Over time, we have created a shared aesthetic and economic vision for the city. Community consultation and buy-in has been the key to establishing the Lanesboro Arts Campus as a means to address civic challenges and create social change. Civic partnerships have enabled us to use the arts—with all their creativity—to foster and encourage community dialog, breaking down perceived barriers to change. The result:

gallery_exterior_Betsy_newdoors_1-15In 2013, Lanesboro, with its population of 754, was named one of the Top 12 Small Town Art Places in America, an accomplishment based on the number of arts opportunities per capita.

In 2014, Lanesboro Arts programming drew in more than 180 volunteers, 300 artists, and 31,000 audience members. Last year, Lanesboro Arts was also awarded a $123,000 Bush Prize for Community Innovation, and completed a $850,000 capital campaign for Phase I of the Arts Campus.

Completed elements of the Lanesboro Arts Campus include:

  • Renovating the historic arts gallery building façade
  • Renovating the historic St. Mane Theater to create space for artists’ residences and classrooms
  • Creating artful signage to promote walkability and connect community spaces with public art and downtown businesses.
  • Transforming the underutilized municipal parking lot into a Poetry Parking lot and arts destination
  • Rebranding our arts organization as Lanesboro Arts.

In September, 2014, the City of Lanesboro unanimously passed a resolution declaring the whole Town of Lanesboro an Arts Campus, becoming the first rural town in America to make such a declaration.

5 responses for Rejection to Re-imagination: A nontraditional cultural district story


Robbie Brokken says
February 04, 2015 at 10:08 am

As a Staff person at Lanesboro Arts I want to ad that to accomplish what John describes takes an enormous amount of work and a passion to do so. 3 Cheers to the entire staff at Lanesboro Arts.
Sara Baskett (Marketing, theater programing, education) , Courtney Bergey,(Development, Assist. ED) me; Robbie Brokken,(Gallery Director) Betsy Holbrook, Fran Sauer, (Gallery Sales Staff) Dave Harrenstein, Theater site manager) Angie Huntington, and Julie Schnieder. (Book keeper and acctountants) Marvel & Delinda (Art Loft housekeepers)

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Fran Sauer says
February 04, 2015 at 11:01 pm

The transformation into an Arts Community has been dramatic and one that makes me smile. Terrific leadership, wise actions, listening to members of the community and taking risks has proven to be very successful for Lanesboro. A special thanks to each of my co-workers. I consider working at Lanesboro Arts Center to be a delight & a privilege.

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Roberta Felker says
February 04, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Yes, indeed: Cheers galore to John and all the Lanesboro Arts folks, all the Lanesboro civic and business leaders, and the arts fans and supporters (and the skeptics, who keep us on our toes!) for believing in and going forward with what once seemed such an impossible dream!

I have followed the Lanesboro story for the past decade, and am proud to be a supporter. As an educator for over 40 years, I understand the inestimable importance that the arts have in community life, especially in small communities. It has been exciting and inspiring to witness the patience, vision, and collaboration that have characterized the Lanesboro arts journey and I look forward to their continued adventures and achievements! Congratulations, John and All The Good Lanesboro Folks!

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February 05, 2015 at 12:01 pm

THanks Robert Felker for you kind words. I wanted to correct my comment. I also want to mention the 150 Volunteers that help us through out the year. We couldn't accomplish a fraction of what we do with out their buy in.

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February 07, 2015 at 1:07 pm

John - as a former Lanesboro Arts board member and business owner in Lanesboro for the past 11 years, thank you for your persistence to sustain the dream, and having the courage and determination to keep the dream alive even when you had a time away from employment at the Art Center.
Thanks as well to board members, volunteers and staff who kept the art center alive through significant financial challenges even before the "great recession" and through it as well.

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