Launching the Rural Arts Program

What We Learned, Impact, Future Plans

Across Minnesota, rural arts organizations such as Franconia, Lanesboro Arts Center, and New York Mills Regional Cultural Center are leading a movement to not only integrate the arts more deeply in rural areas, but to foster a cultural shift in viewing the arts as an essential component of rural economic and social development. As the McKnight Foundation eloquently stated in their Bright Stars report on rural arts,  “The responsibilities of arts leaders in rural communities encompass more than attracting followers for their institutions. Part of their task is also to broaden support for the arts in their communities by helping to develop citizens into civic leaders, a process that in turn creates and preserves a much-needed level of engagement and interest in the community.”

Lanesboro Art Center's St. Mane Theater in Lanesboro, MN.

Lanesboro Art Center’s St. Mane Theater in Lanesboro, MN.

Rural area demographics are rapidly changing, leaving many students with fewer opportunities to access arts experiences and direct engagement with working artists. Many rural areas are also challenged with finding the resources to provide the level of artistic programming and experiences that larger urban and metropolitan areas can offer.

Yet, the arts and creative thinking are critical to developing solid economic opportunities for students in rural communities and developing crucial thinking skills for achieving at higher levels. With its active artist residency, expansive sculpture exhibition, and arts learning programming, Franconia Sculpture Park is uniquely positioned to directly address this challenge.

RAP participants with Chris Park's sculpture "In Between" during a guided tour of the park.

RAP participants with Chris Park’s sculpture “In Between” during a guided tour of the park.

In 2013, Franconia launched a new Rural Arts Program (RAP) to provide essential arts learning programming to rural youth from east central Minnesota. With seed funding provided through the Minnesota State Arts Board Arts Access Program, this program directly addresses financial access barriers for rural youth who are currently underserved with arts programming primarily due to insufficient financial resources for off-site activity fees and transportation expenses. In the pilot year, RAP served nearly 1,300 east central Minnesota youth with fee-free artist-led interactive exhibition tours and art-making workshops led by professional visual artists and reimbursements to support transportation expenses. Demand for RAP far surpassed our initial projections, and we adjusted the scope in order to serve more youth.

RAP participants critiquing sculptures created during a workshop at Franconia.

RAP participants critiquing sculptures created during a workshop at Franconia.

So, What Did We Learn? Addressing Barriers for Minnesota’s Rural Youth

Franconia’s strength is making art active, accessible, and tangible for rural youth in a way that not many other places can.  At Franconia, youth view, touch, and learn about art as it’s actively being created and meet artists-in-residence as they are in the process of creating their work.  Through RAP, Franconia is uniquely positioned to reach rural youth in a welcoming, high-touch setting that encourages deep interaction and engagement with art and artists, opens doors of expression, expands notions of art, and exposes youth to the life of working artists.  RAP is also supporting the growth of collaborative learning communities and reinforcing the importance of sustaining an arts-rich learning environment in the region.

Based on feedback gained from the pilot participants, RAP programming sparks participants’ interest in the arts and creativity, increases focus on academic achievement, provides positive development opportunities for visual learners, and promotes the development of verbally expressive skills, especially among low-income students. Nearly all of the participants in the pilot program were new to Franconia and some were unaware of Franconia’s existence prior to learning about RAP. We also discovered that none of the workshop participants had previously visited Franconia, nor were familiar with the idea of an artist residency program.

Through RAP, Franconia is providing rural youth

  • A positive arts experience, for many this is their first immersive experience learning and creating visual arts
  • Increased awareness of creative professions and sculptural processes
  • Increased opportunities for creative learning and development of technical/problem solving skills related to the arts
Artist Peter Morales teaching plaster carving techniques to RAP participants.

Artist Peter Morales teaching plaster carving techniques to RAP participants.

A teacher shared the impact of RAP for his students, and one student who was particular impacted by the program:

“RAP made it possible for my students, many of whom are from low income families, to participate in a tour and workshop. During the workshop, my students were more engaged and interested than I’ve ever seen.  Due to the liberating environment at Franconia, one of my quietest students volunteered to be a leader of her group. She rarely talks unless spoken to and tends to keep to herself.  Through RAP, she found a niche where she felt comfortable and was able to express herself with confidence.  It has carried over and she is volunteering to help with projects at school, including creating art work for our greenhouse. RAP has had a lasting impact on several of my students. Thank you.”

The Future of Franconia’s Rural Arts Program

The pilot year of RAP was an exciting and remarkable opportunity for Franconia to connect with east central Minnesota youth who were otherwise unfamiliar with the programs and artists who live and create at Franconia. Building those relationships, fostering new partnerships, and learning about the needs of rural youth and youth serving institutions is only just beginning. In 2014, Franconia was awarded a grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council in support of the 2014 RAP Program, to serve rural youth from schools and other youth serving organizations in Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine counties in Minnesota. Through this program, we will continue branching out to new groups of rural youth and youth serving organizations to spread arts access and arts learning opportunities throughout the region.

Long-term we anticipate that RAP, along with other rural arts programs located across Minnesota, will result in communities who inherently value access to the arts, youth who fulfill their creative potential and view the arts as a viable, attainable career path, and both artists and arts are integrated into the development of rural communities.

RAP participants gather for a mini-critique of projects made during a workshop at Franconia.

RAP participants gather for a mini-critique of projects made during a workshop at Franconia.

The 2014 Rural Arts Program is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

For more information, contact Shelby Matula, Education & Program Coordinator via email at



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