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Encouraging individuals and organizations to think bigger and think differently

A day with the past and future of west central Minnesota

Last month I suggested to my parents (both in their 80s) and my husband that we take a road trip to Montevideo, MN to check out  the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s (MCAD) Rural Arts Initiative and combine it with a “roots” trip to nearby Appleton, home of my great great grandparents, August and Sophia Buchholz.

I work in the Advancing Solutions area at the Bush Foundation where InCommons is experimenting with partnerships to test how collaborations can generate new community energy and activity to solve tough problems.  We’re currently supporting a collaboration with MCAD and two communities to demonstrate how art undergraduate students can bring fresh design thinking to the Montevideo area and the Iron Range.  

Earlier in the year, Bernard Canniffe (who chairs MCAD's design department) brought students from his Art and Design in the Community class to western Minnesota to get a sense of the region’s assets, culture, geography and opportunities.  Now, a few weeks later, my family and I were about to join a group of 40 residents at the Montevideo Community Center to listen to these students present their creative suggestions to the community and start a conversation on what might be possible.

Montevideo residents seemed to enjoy the presentation by MCAD students.The students presented a slide show of beautiful images (PDF - 10MB) of farm fields, the river valley and a range of artists living in the area, many with poignant captions like “this is definitely not the city.”  They laid out three potential ideas using their design and creativity skills:  develop an MCAD internship program with area artists, connect locally grown food with artists and music, and tell the story of the area with video and photography.

It was clear that the students were impressed with the diversity of artists, potters, musicians, organic farmers, writers, letter press printers and sculptors living and working in the area. Their eyes were opened to the opportunities made possible by low rents and properties available for a dollar –with heavy contributions of sweat equity. One student remarked that he could never have imagined returning to a small town (having grown up in one) but that this introduction to Montevideo expanded his imagination and willingness to consider such a move.  This revelation fits into Montevideo’s desire to attract young people back to the community to increase the economic vitality of the region.

Ideas generated by students & community members working togetherThe presentations led to an engaging conversation with the assembled participants, moderated by Patrick Moore from Clean Up the River Environment, to figure out what could actually get done and if there was interest to pursue the ideas.  Though there were some concerns about how to keep the focus on the community and not just benefit the students, the majority in the room seemed intrigued and interested in building on the concepts.  People started a list of potential projects where students could get involved. Two women from Ortonville encouraged MCAD students to come and work with the Big Stone County Arts Council right away!

(By the way, Minnesota Public Radio News was also at the event if you want to read their report.)

We finished the day with a tour of the Appleton cemetery to visit the graves of our ancestors and a stop at the old Leader department store that my great uncle Charlie and his wife Anna once ran. Local historian, Tom Rice, gave us a great overview of how my great great grandfather most likely came to the region in 1879 and how he homesteaded the land.  This information helped remind us how connected we are to Minnesota as fourth- and fifth- generation inhabitants, and the responsibility we share in making the state a place of respect and honor for all its residents.

It’s inspiring to know that the MCAD students and people from the Montevideo area are thinking together about new ways to work together to carrying that same responsibility forward into future generations.

Talk Back to Bush

What other strategies could engage artists or young people in rural communities? Is innovation enough to keep small communities vital? What barriers exist to innovation? We want to know what you think.

About Art and Design in the Community – Instructors: Bernard Canniffe and Brian Wiley (TA). Students: Dylan Adams, Racquel Banaszak, Theodore Birt, Alexandra Fritz, Brian Mueller, Naomi Osborn, Anton Pearson and Kate Thomas.


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With the group studying opportunities in the Montevideo Area - I would like to see more information about the WPA projects done in the area. In particular, the Lac qui Parle State Park buildings especially the unique one that has the topographical map in it. My Grandfather was one of the workers on this project. There are many similar projects throughout our cities and parks but the history about them needs to be captured before the information and story tellers are gone. Thank you for recognizing the rich talents and resources of our part of the state. Sincerely, Ruth Ann Lee

Victoria Tirrel's picture

Ruth Ann, thanks so much for your comment and the good idea about a WPA project. I'll make sure Catherine Jordan sees your comment. Best, Victoria Tirrel

RuthAnn Lee: Thanks for the reminder about the WPA artist projects. I attended a Minneapolis grade school that benefited from beautiful WPA murals in our school hallways.  The WPA’s Federal Art Project put many visual artists to work across the country. You can see the list of artworks in Minnesota at this link:  It’s a great example how individuals and government worked together to create a lasting legacy. Best, Catherine