SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


Arts Vibrancy in Rural Communities is Achieved through Collective Action

  • Posted Jun 27, 2024

13-minute read

SMU DataArts is delighted to feature a special article by Geoffrey Kershner, CEO at the Academy Center of the Arts and founder of Small Town Big Arts, who shares his expert insights on arts vibrancy in rural America.


Historic centre of Livingston near Yellowstone National Park, Montana (2013) Historic centre of Livingston near Yellowstone National Park, Montana (2013)

During a challenging moment building an audience for a summer theatre festival in a rural community, a collaborator of mine remarked, “A community gets the theatre company it deserves.” This comment lingered with me, flipping the notion I had held that the responsibility for successful arts initiatives largely fell on the artists and their work. As I delved into the 2023 Arts Vibrancy studies by SMU DataArts, I found myself revisiting this statement frequently. I concluded that the term "deserves" might oversimplify the dynamics at play. It fails to consider specific actions that artists and arts organizations can and should take to promote arts vibrancy in their cities, towns, and counties. Nevertheless, the communities themselves bear a high level of responsibility.

As we examine SMU DataArts’ findings, let’s acknowledge that certain environmental factors significantly influence the ease of arts delivery in rural locales, a reality reflected in the data. Factors such as community wealth, robust local tourism, and government officials who recognize and promote the arts for economic and community development greatly facilitate the work of artists and arts organizations. This correlation is evident in many of the arts-vibrant rural communities identified. Jen Benoit-Bryan, Director of SMU DataArts, graciously gave me early access to a list of the top 30 arts vibrant rural counties so that I could dig into the data and find the stories behind the numbers. In rural communities lacking advantages like wealth and tourism, achieving arts vibrancy presents a more formidable challenge, though not an insurmountable one. Looking at the data allowed me to uncover how even in less advantaged communities, dedicated efforts by the community and supportive initiatives can bridge the gap, demonstrating that arts vibrancy can be attained through persistent collective action.

What Steps Can a Rural Community Take to Foster Arts Vibrancy?

A rural community may not necessarily receive the art it deserves, but it certainly gets the art it is collectively willing to work for. The majority of any given rural community must demonstrate a willingness to work towards arts vibrancy. Beyond artists and arts administrators, the community at large must actively engage and participate. This commitment is reflected in philanthropic contributions to the arts, volunteerism, engagement through participation as arts observers and arts participants, in-kind donations and services, prominent community figures joining arts boards, and constituents advocating for arts funding from local governments. While community wealth can be advantageous, it is not a prerequisite for success. Every dollar matters, particularly in smaller communities where even modest investments can yield significant results in per capita arts spending.

What Role Can Artists and Arts Administrators Play in Fostering Arts Vibrancy?

In my role as the CEO of the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg, VA, I must discern what my community will support and what it won't, both financially and through engagement. In a free-market society, community support is demonstrated through both earned and charitable contributions. My responsibilities are twofold: first, to provide arts activities that genuinely resonate with the community, ensuring the value of our work is evident; second, to educate the community on the importance of supporting arts vibrancy through engagement, philanthropy, and government backing. Education is key because most people don’t understand the financial pressures on the arts; unaware that ongoing support is crucial for sustaining beloved activities, performances, classes, workshops, and venues.

Examples of Rural Communities Collectively Supporting the Arts

So, what motivates a community to take actions that advance the arts? While major markets have the advantage of extensive arts scenes due to a much larger number of constituents and funders, the key in smaller communities lies in garnering widespread community support. I've noticed that certain types of organizations are commonly found in smaller communities. These are organizational models I have identified before—each an embodiment of a unique synergy with its environment, catering to the specific needs and dynamics of its community. As I examined the communities identified as arts-vibrant by SMU DataArts, I noticed that the unique stories of the arts entities in these communities mapped onto a familiar set of organizational types I have identified in my previous work. 

  • The Center: In towns and small cities, The Center is a consolidation of resources and serves as an umbrella organization providing cultural infrastructure for the community.
  • The Cultivator: Sometimes the catalyst for artistic output isn’t an artist or an arts organization but an economic development office or a community development corporation. 
  • The Enclave: In picturesque and remote landscapes, The Enclave model sees professional artists creating a refuge and artistic home in small communities.
  • The Educator: Geared toward youth development, The Educator model utilizes youth arts programs to impact community development.
  • The Torchbearer: The Torchbearers work to preserve, celebrate, and activate the traditional art forms that weave the rich tapestry of our American identity. 
  • The Facilitator: Private arts-focused foundations or arts councils established within communities serve as essential facilitators for arts activities, particularly in smaller locales with limited financial and human resources. 

All of these organizational models work well in smaller communities because of the balance of responsibilities between the community and the arts administrators and/or artists. The arts provided are valued and relatively sustainable, and their achievement of arts vibrancy is supported by varying but strong degrees of community support, including participation, philanthropy, volunteerism, and local government support that is within what a rural community has the capacity to supply.

Hinsdale, CO (The Center)

Population: 775

Image courtesy of Lake City Arts Image courtesy of Lake City Arts

Located in Hinsdale County, Colorado (the most remote county in the lower 48 states), the mountain town of Lake City is nestled within the San Juan Mountains. The town effectively consolidates resources dedicated to the arts through the Lake City Arts Center. This centralization of support provides a sustainable model for arts funding in a community of only 775 people. Despite its geographic isolation, a thriving community of artists flourishes thanks to this “center” of support. Painters, sculptors, photographers, and musicians all contribute to the town's unique cultural identity through Lake City Arts, a non-profit organization established to provide cultural infrastructure for the area. Housed within the Moseley Arts Center, Lake City Arts offers a diverse program of exhibitions, live performances, and educational workshops. “We have a world-class gallery that houses both professional artists and can serve as an incubator for blossoming artists who are new to the industry,” said Lake City Arts Executive Director Katie Briggs. The organization serves not only as a platform for local talent but also fosters a dynamic space for artistic exchange that the majority of the community values and supports.

Woods County, OK (The Cultivator)

Population: 8,587

Image courtesy of Freedom West CDC Image courtesy of Freedom West CDC

Woods County, Oklahoma, especially its county seat, Alva, is a hub of artistic vitality. Much of this vibrancy can be attributed to the visionary leadership of Kay Decker and the Freedom West CDC. The CDC operates as a “cultivator” of the arts in the county. Amidst the 2008 housing crisis, Kay recognized the transformative power of the arts as an economic driver and established the Graceful Arts Center, complete with a full-time staff member. Kay’s initiative extended further with the establishment of a Downtown Arts District through a City Municipal Ordinance and the introduction of its First Friday program. These efforts catalyzed a myriad of artistic endeavors, prominently showcased by the Alva Mural Society, boasting an impressive 34 murals and earning Alva the moniker of the "Mural Capital of Oklahoma." The artistic surge also fortified organizations like the Act 1 Community Theatre and some private downtown galleries. Crucially, the Nescatunga Arts and Humanities Council, stewarding the Runnymede Community Space, a renovated former hotel, serves as cultural infrastructure for artists and community activities. This artistic work also utilizes a local foundation, the Charles Morton Share Trust, whose founder was an artist, for local investment. The “cultivating” work by the Freedom West CDC extends beyond state lines, drawing artists from neighboring Kansas and Texas, and enhancing the county's cultural tapestry.

Bath County, VA (The Enclave)

Population: 4,049

Image courtesy of Garth Newel, Bath County, VA. Image courtesy of Garth Newel, Bath County, VA.

Bath County, Virginia, nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, boasts a vibrant arts scene with a focus on both visual and performing arts. The world-renowned Garth Newel Music Center has made its home near Hot Springs, VA, an idyllic location for artistic creation and artist retreats. Founded in 1973, this non-profit institution presents over 50 concerts annually, featuring established and emerging chamber music performers drawn to the beauty of this “enclave.” Educational programs offered by Garth Newel further enrich the artistic landscape, providing instruction and performance opportunities for musicians of all ages. 

Along with the Garth Newel Music Center, the Bath County Arts Association (BCAA), founded in 1965, champions artistic endeavors through educational programs, scholarships, and the annual Bath County Art Show. Additionally, you will find the Warm Springs Gallery owned by Barbara Buhr. Buhr also organizes the annual Bath County Plein Air Festival, which brings artists from across the Mid-Atlantic to participate in painting the beautiful landscapes of the area. All of these organizations solidify Bath County's status as “arts vibrant.” The local community supports the continuation of these organizations due to their clear value as economic drivers, community branding tools, and tourism draw.

Nantucket, MA (The Educator)

Population: 14,421

Traditional Nantucket Baskets with Carved Lighthouse Scrimshaw Top. Photo by Cindy Miller Hopkins/Danita Delimont. Traditional Nantucket Baskets with Carved Lighthouse Scrimshaw Top. Photo by Cindy Miller Hopkins/Danita Delimont.

Nantucket County, Massachusetts, benefits greatly from tourism and concentrated wealth, but the community has created an artistic ecosystem that clearly serves the citizens of Nantucket, despite the expectation that arts and culture might be largely curated for outside visitors. In a recent interview, Dr. Jerome Socolof and Dr. Elise Lael Kieffer, the authors of the newly released textbook "Rural Arts Management," shared that smaller communities with high tourism, which are able to sustain their arts ecosystem, always focus on their residents as well as outside visitors. This can be seen in an organization like the Nantucket Community Music Center. This organization, with a major focus on youth development, falls into the category of organizations I call “The Educator.” This non-profit organization builds a culture of music appreciation with a particular focus on youth development through lessons, ensembles, and performance opportunities. The Center runs both youth and adult choirs, a drumline, and a community jazz band, alongside programs like music and movement for young children and workshops on various musical topics. In existence for 40 years, the Nantucket Community Music Center serves as a hub for music education, performance, and community connection on the island. Along with the center, Nantucket boasts a thriving arts scene supported by the Nantucket Cultural District, which unites various arts organizations such as The Artists Association of Nantucket and The Nantucket Island School of Design.

Clark County, KS (The Torchbearer)

Population: 1,933

Kansas Historical Marker at Big Basin Prairie Preserve, Clark County, Kansas. (2002) Kansas Historical Marker at Big Basin Prairie Preserve, Clark County, Kansas. (2002)

This is an important community to talk about because it has a very small population of 1,993. The per capita spend doesn’t need to be high for it to be arts-vibrant. The county seat is Ashland, Kansas. Ashland is home to Kansas’s largest barn quilt and is a “torchbearer” for the traditional art of creating large quilt block designs and painting them on plywood or aluminum panels. These painted panels are then displayed on the exterior of barns, sheds, or other buildings. 

Teresa Arnold, a resident of Ashland, Kansas, spearheaded the creation of the state's largest barn quilt with the help of her friends and community members. Inspired by barn quilt designs, Teresa and her network looked for ways to showcase their creations and promote Ashland. The project, funded through donations and volunteer work, resulted in a 30-foot by 16-foot display featuring various quilt squares designed by over 50 participants. Installed on the side of a local grocery store, the barn quilt not only beautifies the town but also serves as a symbol of local tradition and culture, which is a galvanizing community force.

Hemphill County, TX (The Facilitator)

Population: 3,217

Image courtesy of Citadelle Art Foundation Image courtesy of Citadelle Art Foundation

In the county seat of Canadian, Texas, there is a historic landmark that has served multiple purposes over the last 100 years. Originally home to the First Baptist Church, built in 1910, the building was purchased by Malouf and Therese Abraham in 1977. The Abrahams converted the former church into their family residence. After 30 years of serving as their home, the Abrahams donated the converted church, their art collection (which includes Norman Rockwell’s "First Day of School"), and their gardens to the community to serve as an art museum, now facilitated through The Citadelle Art Foundation.

The foundation has become a key “facilitator” of the arts in Hemphill County, located in the Texas Panhandle. It manages the Citadelle Art Museum, which boasts a diverse permanent collection and regularly hosts a rotation of temporary exhibits. Expanding its value to the community, the foundation also delivers educational programs both onsite and offsite through its “Roadshow” program. The organization employs a full-time staff, including its Executive Director, Wendie Cook, who also serves on the City Council for Canadian. This civic engagement by Cook further demonstrates the organization’s wider community involvement and participation.

Presidio County, TX (The Outlier)

Population: 5,939

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984. Concrete art installation outside the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984. Concrete art installation outside the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas.

Some communities are just so unique in their circumstances that they are almost impossible to replicate. This is the case for Marfa, Texas in Presidio County. It is important to talk about though because it redefines how we think of rural communities and their relationship to the arts. Marfa became a beacon of contemporary art following artist Donald Judd's arrival in the 1970s. Judd's vision transformed this remote West Texas town into a cultural hub, marked by its minimalist aesthetics and expansive desert landscapes. Central to Marfa's arts scene is the Chinati Foundation, founded by Judd, which occupies a former military base and showcases his large-scale minimalist installations alongside works by other artists. The foundation's presence anchors Marfa's artistic identity and draws visitors from around the globe. Complementing the Chinati Foundation is a second foundation, the Judd Foundation, and institutions like Marfa Contemporary, The Crowley Theater, and Ballroom Marfa, which exhibit contemporary art and host dynamic cultural events that explore the intersection of art, music, and culture. Marfa's art galleries and public installations further enrich the town's cultural landscape, offering spaces for both local and visiting artists to showcase their work. However, what truly sets Marfa apart is its tight-knit community, where residents actively engage with and support the arts through participation in cultural events and initiatives. In Marfa, collective creativity flourishes, making it a truly unique destination for art lovers and adventurers alike.

Collectively Work for Arts Vibrancy in Your Community

In my work with Small Town Big Arts, I've observed that thriving small communities often owe their arts vibrancy to one or two remarkable individuals who exhibit incredible selflessness and charisma, like Kay Decker in Woods County, OK. These individuals drive the community's artistic endeavors with passion and perseverance. However, such reliance on a few individuals will not sustain arts vibrancy. If these individuals are the primary drivers for the arts in your community, it's crucial  to plan for succession by encouraging more community members to step forward and support the arts through collective action.

While special individuals like Kay Decker serve as catalysts, sustained arts vibrancy emerges from collaborative efforts involving not just artists and arts administrators but also local governments, local businesses, non-profits outside of the arts, and community members. Arts Vibrancy driven by a few dynamic individuals won't outlive any one individual’s actions. Sustained arts vibrancy in rural communities is achieved through collective and ongoing efforts, which can then become deeply embedded in the identity and established culture of a community.

Geoffrey Kershner Geoffrey Kershner (Founder of is the CEO at the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg, VA, and the founder of the Endstation Theatre Company and Small Town Big Arts, an online resource for small community arts delivery.

During his tenure at the Academy, the organization increased its overall operating budget by 405% between 2015 and 2024. Geoffrey has served on the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Rhode Island Council for the Arts, and ArtsHERE grant review panels.

He also served on the Nomination Advisory Committee and as a panelist for the Mid Atlantic Arts Regional Resilience Fund. He was a member of the National Arts Strategies' 2014-2015 Chief Executive Cohort and the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council. He currently serves on the Virginians for the Arts board of directors and on an advisory group for the Radically Rural Conference.

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