The rural landscape in Minnesota is dramatically changing, affecting everything from healthcare, local economies, education, and cultural opportunities. The McKnight Foundation’s Bright Stars Report shone a light on Minnesota’s small communities who are maintaining their vibrancy amidst the struggles that many rural communities face. Nestled within the rural landscape of the St. Croix River Valley, Franconia Sculpture Park is deeply embedded and attuned to the needs of our surrounding rural community. To increase arts learning experiences for youth in our region and ensure our community is a “Bright Star”, Franconia launched the Rural Arts Program (RAP) in 2013.
What Happens During RAP?
RAP brings together professional and emerging artists with rural youth from Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine counties in east central Minnesota. RAP provides fee-free Discover Sculpture Tours of the 43-acre sculpture park that provide insights into the principles, elements, techniques, and tools of sculpture. It also serves as a point of inspiration for the second portion of the day, a hands-on art-making session with professional artists. In addition to free creative activities, the program offers up to $300 in transportation reimbursements to youth groups, which makes attending a RAP session virtually free. Students have carved forms out of plaster, learned about the print-making process, experienced the connection between dance & sculpture through movement, and have even built sculpture from pink foam. Most importantly, every youth interacts with working artists, and is given time to express their creativity and broaden their viewpoint. Eyes sparkle with imagination, excitement is in the air as youth use new tools for the first time, and rich connections are made as youth immerse themselves in the artistic process. The type of distinctive atmosphere Franconia offers generated positive responses from the feedback we have received throughout RAP offerings. Sifting through the surveys, we found an overarching theme – this program does matter: teachers, youth leaders, and students all really want and, in same cases, need programs like RAP.
Arts Learning for Rural Youth
At a time when the arts in all forms are being cut or marginalized in institutional settings, especially in economically disadvantaged communities, which rural communities are often considered, Franconia can be a solution to enhancing education by offering arts learning programs like RAP. Group leaders indicated that 40% of the students who have participated in RAP have no dedicated visual arts teacher. Other schools have limited hours devoted to visual arts learning, one indicated their school only has art 12 times in one school year. The reduction in school-based, hands-on visual arts programming is happening across the country, even though an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the arts are vital to a well rounded education, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies report. The report also outlines how high involvement in the arts improves understanding of other subjects, increases critical thinking skills, improves test scores, and can even be a motivator to achieve. Elliot Eisner, a prominent leader and advocate for Arts Education eloquently summarizes the 10 lessons the arts teach in his book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind. The lessons include: the arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution, that questions can have more than one answer, the arts celebrate multiple perspectives, and so much more.
If rural schools are limited in the resources required to conduct vital arts learning on campus, then perhaps a solution is to seek out cultural organizations within their communities to teach art related content? Franconia’s rural location and artistic expertise provide the missing arts education link and are certainly part of the solution. No more traveling hours to major urban centers or mastering a new set of skills to fulfill arts benchmarks. Relying on Franconia and places like it gives youth leaders room on their plate for numerous other subjects, but traveling off-site can be another barrier to achieving academic and social outcomes.
Teachers and youth development professionals are remarkable creatures – they face budget cuts in stride and do their best to provide a variety of enriching activities for their students, both in and outside of the arts. Findings from RAP reflect a clear demand and need for field trips so youth can access hands-on arts learning outside of school. 80% of youth leaders reported that they take their students off-site less than two times in a year. More than 56% stated the driving force for attending RAP was that it was almost completely free, with the addition of a transportation reimbursement. In fact, 80% of leaders said transportation costs alone are their biggest barrier to participating in arts learning opportunities off school grounds. Franconia thought – let’s bust down that barrier! Every single group that has attended RAP since it’s inception has been reimbursed for part, if not all of their transportation expense. Without the extra hurdle of procuring bus money, youth leaders can focus on what really matters and even strengthen the lessons learned in the classroom. Many comments from follow-up communication suggested that any off-site educational opportunity strengthens classroom curriculum because it transforms textbook concepts into reality. Abstract notions finally become tangible and understandable in the real world. In addition, teachers stressed how refreshing it is for their students to hear concepts and ideas from a new person!
Why is this Important? Intrinsic and Instrumental Value
Franconia truly believes that the visual arts offers a platform of learning that is imperative to any community. This logic is built right into our vision: Interactions among artists, artwork, and audience transform into a greater awareness of the world we live in, builds an understanding for diverse perspectives, and inspires creativity. The positive impact the arts have is not a new topic and as an arts organization, Franconia intuitively understands the arts change dynamics for the better in youth development and even the economy.
But the arts are not just about test scores or how many dollars are spent at local restaurants, they make us feel darn good! The Wallace Foundation’s report Gifts of the Muse explains both the instrumental and intrinsic values of the arts and why both sets of benefits should have equal weight when discussing the merit in creative activities. The intrinsic qualities of the arts offers humans that “thing” that helps you make sense of the world around you. It’s a springboard for growth in your own capacity to do something. One teacher summed it up best with her story of surprise during a RAP workshop:
One of my students volunteered to read and describe her art – what a huge surprise! She hardly says “boo” in school. I talk with her as much as I can, but most of the time she just smiles. Franconia and the artists were so terrific with the students! This was a great risk for them to show a part of who they are without being ridiculed or told they are stupid. Any opportunity to show them a positive rewarding way of life is wonderful. I have worked with at-risk youth for many years. Giving any youth new experiences can be life changing, but for these kids it is even greater. They have not had very many successes. In fact they are so good at failing that they will not finish something because they don’t know how to handle success. There were many surprises during the day, including seeing a student from a difficult background participate and enjoy himself. It touched my heart. I could go on about the day, but I will end by thanking you and your staff. You also enhanced my life.
Testimonials like these keep Franconia focused on providing accessible arts learning opportunities, especially for rural youth right in our “backyard”. The community wants and needs arts opportunities, so Franconia will continue to fill the gap and provide rural youth opportunities to learn and create art. RAP will evolve, growth, and change for the better as we continue to learn more about our neighbors, discover the needs of the community, and build relationships with youth serving organizations. As always, continue to read our blog, follow us on social media, or check our website to stay clued-in to all the exciting opportunities at Franconia. If you have any questions about the RAP program, or other education programs, please contact Shelby Matula via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2014-2015 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.