The Currency of Connection: the Arts and the Cooperative Extension Service as an alternative model to rural arts development

Posted by Savannah Barrett, Feb 19, 2014 2 comments

savannah Savannah Barrett

There are many ways that the arts contribute to a more diversified economy. As the funding consortium ArtPlace America demonstrates, creative placemaking has become an investment priority for many funders. With 32% of arts event attendees travelling from another county, cultural tourism is increasingly popular as an earned income generator for small towns across America. Arts organizations and the events that they host generate a significant boost to the economy, estimated at $135.2 billion annually by the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study. The question is no longer IF the arts contribute to a thriving economy, but HOW to best employ arts and cultural amenities to promote economic stability and social uplift in disparate communities.

Many strategies have worked well in communities large and small across the nation, and many of those position the arts at the strategy’s core. Still, there is no silver bullet to address the comprehensive needs of a whole community, as a different approach is necessarily used in each success. While we should study, reflect, and aspire to the opportunities for investment that each type of arts and economic opportunity provides, we as artists and organizers must envision a plan with our communities that amplify the resonance of our own cultural assets. That reverberation attracts others, and that collective energy can resound across the spectrum of a place to impact the social, domestic, and economic health of your community.

Engage Your Whole Community
Opportunities to engage with diverse perspectives and cultural experiences aren’t urban amenities, but quality of life amenities. When a region (rural or urban) envisions a future through art and demonstrates consistent offerings of varied activities that people can not only observe but participate in, those people (both tourists and locals) have the kinds of remarkable experiences that inspire devotion to a destination. The buzz that the arts and culture prompt in a community draws people into social space, which attracts business. Those kinds of thriving markets accomplish a dual task: they engage with their cultural richness by coming together as a whole community, which attracts new markets overtime and continues to honor their cultural heritage in a genuine, sustainable way.

So the goal isn’t just to make your community more vibrant, or more like another place, but to create something that is built up from your community’s assets and invites your whole community to the table.  Rather than attracting various sectors to take part in your discussion, invite folks to the table to create a discussion together that addresses the collective concerns about your place. Both the Mayor and the pizza delivery person are likely to have a whole range of interests and perspectives that don’t relate to their job titles, so make sure to invite different kinds of folks to participate in the process. It may take more time to engage many various sectors, but the effects of whole community planning will last longer.

The Cooperative Extensions Services Act Engagement Model
One surprisingly far reaching arts engagement model that employs this kind of horizontal structure is the Cooperative Extension Service. While they’re centralized in a vertical organizational structure, they engage folks on the ground in the management of their local chapters because they interact with not just one aspect of the community (i.e.arts, agriculture, youth, community development), but all of them. They encourage a programming design process that incorporates the ideas and represents the demographic and disciplinary diversity of their whole communities. They employ not only the currency of connection between community members to promote the discreet aspects of their programming, but also the connections between urban and rural; academic and practitioner; expert and apprentice.

Well known for their engagement with agricultural and domestic life, the Cooperative Extension Service has a lesser known history of coordinating arts programming. Several pioneers in the community arts field were enabled to do rural arts work through their affiliation with land-grant university agriculture departments. One hundred years ago, Alfred Arvold became a faculty member in the North Dakota State University Agriculture Department and developed the “Little Country Theatre Movement.” By so doing, Arvold was among the first to leverage the arts as a means of fulfilling the mandate of the Smith-Lever Act. Additionally, Robert Gard developed the Wisconsin Idea Theatre in the 1940s and a part of the Cooperative Extension Service in Wisconsin, which engaged thousands of Wisconsinites in telling the stories of their place. In 1966, the Community Arts Development office of the Wisconsin Extension Service was awarded the nation’s first NEA grant for the arts in small communities and by 1973, 23 arts extension agents were working throughout that state.

These extension programs were ideal conduits for community arts programming in rural areas because the rural citizenry had prior experience and were comfortable engaging in Extension programs. Additionally, the infrastructure was in existence to disseminate programming to a wide range of geographically separated people. Currently, many states operate arts extension programs alongside their agricultural and community development strategies including Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Wisconsin. These states utilize the arts as a vehicle for community development through entrepreneurship, cultural tourism, youth development, and community arts.

The national 4-H organization recently revised their curriculum to emphasize Communication and Expressive Arts as a priority area that will effectively engage Extension Service programs across the country in youth programming related to communications, photography, and theatre arts. As a result, your local extension office could use your arts and culture expertise to fulfill their mission, and that could provide an opportunity for wider collaboration. Find out more about the arts programs of the Cooperative Extension Service: Culture in Agriculture: The Cooperative Extension Service as an Alternative Rural Arts Model.

Take Action
While the strategy for community and economic development may be different in each place, we hope this Cooperative Extension Service model will be helpful in working across your community’s sectors to create a strategy that is rich with community ownership.  We invite you to envision the future of your community through art.

2014 is the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act, and the Cooperative Extension Service is celebrating through a partnership with Imagining America called Extension Reconsidered. Art of the Rural and the Year of the Rural Arts are partnering on the initiative, and are excited to connect the outcomes of this effort back to the rural arts community. Please feel welcome to contact us with your questions and ideas: [email protected].

Want to know more about economic development and art in rural communities? Make plans to attend the Americans for the Arts Economic Development in Rural Communities webinar on February 26, 2014 at 3:00 PM EST. This is the first in a series of three webinars in our "Community Development in Rural Communities" series held on concurrent days in one week. To register for the entire series please visit the series registration page

2 responses for The Currency of Connection: the Arts and the Cooperative Extension Service as an alternative model to rural arts development


Kassia says
February 25, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Great BLOG! exciting to see you engaged in Rural Arts Advocacy

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March 04, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Thank you, Kassia! It's an honor to be engaged at this level and to bring voice to the significance of arts programs in Cooperative Extension.

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