Could Rural Iowa be the Next Artist Hotspot?

Posted January 1, 1970

A young artist, lost in the sea of a big city art scene, is looking for a fresh, eager audience. A rural community, reeling from decades of lost jobs and lost residents, is looking for a comeback.

Zachary Mannheimer is bent on bringing these two together.

“If you track the artists who are doing their work for community betterment, they are forced to the fringes,” away from the saturated markets of New York City and the like, says Mannheimer. He experienced this first hand. An artist himself, he searched the country for an alternative to Brooklyn, looking for a place where he could make an impact. He found Des Moines. There, he started the Des Moines Social Club, which has transformed the city’s arts and culture scene.

Now, as Des Moines and other moderate sized cities start to reach their own saturation points, Mannheimer predicts that more artists will want to move to smaller towns and rural areas. That’s why he established a new “Creative Place-Making” program at Iowa Business Growth, to help communities prepare for this trend. For many of Iowa’s small towns, the opportunity can’t come soon enough.

Over the past 40 years or so, many of our rural areas and towns have been fighting against the loss of good jobs and residents. For years, most places thought that the answer was to compete with their neighbors to attract manufacturing jobs. Yet that strategy has not always been successful (or at least not the silver bullet it appeared to be). Even for those that did manage to attract a plant, they may have found that it wasn’t enough, that it brought new challenges they weren’t prepared for, or even worse, that it moved away as soon as the tax credits ran out.

Although manufacturing still holds a critical place in the Iowa economy (it remains our largest industry), the pressure of global competition compels our towns and rural places to look beyond their traditional economic development tactics.

Many planners and community development professionals across the region are now choosing to expand their strategy for revitalization, to include arts, culture and "placemaking." They are working to make their community into something culturally unique, a place that will make people want to move there and stay there (and the jobs, presumably, will follow). But how do they do that? Can they do it? That’s where Mannheimer steps in.

Mannheimer wants to connect with places that have a good base of potential, but still need a few transformations to get ready to take advantage of the tide of artists he thinks could be headed their way. Although a community may be ready for a cultural revolution in theory, they may not be in practice. He and his colleagues are developing a set of criteria to help determine which communities may be primed for this cultural influx:

“Do they have a culture of philanthropy? Stable major employers? A solid housing stock? Resources for workforce development? Do they have a progressive government? Are they a county seat or are they within an hour drive of a metropolitan area?” The right combination of factors like these, says Mannheimer, provides the basic structure for success.

For those with the basics in place, the next step is to identify under-used assets or missing pieces that will set the stage for change. One example is the classic abandoned school building, something Mannheimer sees all over the region. Can it be repurposed for artist studios or other cultural endeavors? Or how about those empty storefronts on main street? Put up a few thousand dollars and a low-rent space as the prize for a restaurant competition, and get yourself a 4-star restaurant. (Several communities in Iowa have already done this, with success).

Certainly, Mannheimer acknowledges, there’s a limit to how far this can take us - not every struggling town can be saved this way. But what is the limit? “I don’t know yet,” he says, “but I know we’re not even close.”

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Mannheimer will bring his message to the 2016 APA Iowa Chapter Conference on October 19 during the Wednesday plenary session at 4 pm. Register Online Now.

Could Rural Iowa be the Next Artist Hotspot?

An influx of artists could provide a kickstart for small towns