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In small-town Wisconsin, the arts are having a moment

Peter Rebhahn, Baraboo News Republic via AP

In rural Sauk County, acres-long art installations inhabit farm fields and musicians strum guitars within earshot of lowing cattle.

In Reedsburg and Baraboo, fledgling nonprofits work to build stronger communities and vital economies via the arts.

And in the tourism juggernaut of Wisconsin Dells, officials seek to transform a magnet for summer vacationers into a year-round destination with a new arts district.

In those places and elsewhere in rural Wisconsin, “the arts,” loosely interpreted, star in a movement driven by 21st-century cultural and economic forces.

“We’re in an interesting historical moment right now,” says Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin. “The economy is changing and we’re living it.”

Arts Wisconsin is a Madison-based nonprofit founded in 1992 to help lead and advance the state’s “creative economy.”

Katz, who has led the organization since 1995, said the economic crash that began in 2007 and the Great Recession that followed in 2008 and 2009 marked a turning point in the way municipal planners looked at economic development.

Previously, communities focused economic development efforts almost entirely on bringing factories and other large businesses to town. Increasingly, though, the vital economic role of the arts is becoming clearer.

Katz works with artists, other nonprofits and municipalities across the state from her office in Madison. But she said residents of Sauk County and neighboring areas needn’t look far for good evidence that officials are beginning to understand the role the arts can play in revitalizing communities.

“Sauk County is one of only three counties in the state, and the only rural county, that has a public arts funding program,” Katz says. “Sauk County is a hotbed of this kind of development because it has all the assets.”

The assets include a landscape at the edge of the Driftless Area — the portion of the Midwest not leveled by prehistoric glaciers — that mixes the rugged and pastoral but doesn’t end there.

“You’ve got all these creative people, you’ve got beautiful landscapes, you’ve got this history — let’s do something with that,” Katz says.

Marty Krueger, chairman of the Sauk County Board of Supervisors, acknowledged that Sauk County’s arts grants result in occasional pushback from residents.

“My answer to them is we cannot not afford it,” Krueger says. “This is not just a grant. It’s an investment.”


In recent years, Krueger has championed “creative placemaking,” a relatively new and still evolving approach to development that links local culture and the arts with the unique attributes of a community to both grow the economy and create a better place for residents to live.

“The entire creative placemaking effort is … one of the keys to the economic development, future of this county,” Krueger says.

Keeping and attracting young people is essential to the county’s economic future, and that’s not accomplished the way it once was, Krueger says.

Studies show that young adults, those in their 20s and 30s, make decisions based on different values than their parents and grandparents.

Krueger says young people embarking on careers once gladly accepted job offers without much consideration of where they’d live. “You took the job and hoped you liked the location,” Krueger says.

Today, young job candidates are likely to weigh location more heavily, in many cases deciding where they want to live before finding employment — and that’s even more true for those with an entrepreneurial bent.

Krueger says selling the placemaking idea to local officials concerned with what happens within their own boundaries is an ongoing challenge.

“If we really work together and not be concerned whether the person locates in Reedsburg or Baraboo or Sauk (Prairie) but that they’re in Sauk County we all win, because if Baraboo wins, Sauk County wins,” Kreueger says. “If Reedsburg wins Baraboo wins — that type of mentality.”

To be effective, placemaking initiatives need to grow from the ground up, according to Sherry Wagner-Henry, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It has to be authentic, it has to be right for the place that it’s happening,” Wagner-Henry says.

The Bolz Center, founded in 1969, is the oldest arts administration graduate training program in the country. Its graduates — many are artists themselves — deal with the business side of the arts, and may find work as managers or artistic directors for theater or dance companies.

Wagner-Henry says graduates are finding more jobs lately within community arts foundations.

“There’s a big movement right now. … It’s this whole idea of creative placemaking,” Wagner-Henry says. “It’s about artists becoming involved with urban planning and community development.”

Both Katz and Wagner-Henry say there’s no better local example of creative placemaking than one born in Reedsburg that has begun to spread across Sauk County.

The organizers of the Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour (best thought of as two parts of a single event) label it “a live culture convergence” — a phrase that deftly intertwines the multiple meanings of culture as they relate to agriculture, biology and the humanities.

The Fest and DTour grew from a seed planted in 2010 when a Reedsburg nonprofit, the Wormfarm Institute, secured a grant to bring a Smithsonian Institution exhibit to town. Wormfarm later formed a public-private collaboration with the city to create the event.

“The word ‘culture’ comes from Latin meaning to till the soil,” says co-founder Donna Neuwirth. “Culture and agriculture are inextricably linked — we have just forgotten. Wormfarm’s work since we formed in 2000 has been about reimagining what this intersection looks like in the 21st century.”

The Institute seeks to “build a sustainable future for agriculture and the arts by fostering vital links between people and the land,” according to the organization’s website.

The Fest and DTour, now in its fifth year, is a colorful and potent mixture of ideas, food, education, entertainment and public art that can’t be neatly boxed.

“This event is mutifaceted and often difficult to grasp,” Neuwirth said. “I think that is its strength. People are never more engaged than when brows are furrowed and they are puzzling over something.”

And there’s much to puzzle over along the 50-mile, self-guided Farm/Art DTour course that this year included a mile-long clothesline and a farm field converted to a musical instrument with chimes of varying pitch crossing the rolling terrain.

“An idea like that doesn’t play everywhere, but they created something that was very specific to the people and the community,” Wagner-Henry said.

Economic Impact

The Fest and DTour may defy pithy explanation, but evidence suggests visitors get it — and like it.

“Last year, we had people from 14 states and five countries show up,” says Kristine Koenecke, executive director of the Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

Because the Fest and DTour play out over a wide area, the event has many points of entry and visitors experience it in many ways. That makes precise participation data tough to come by.

The Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce building serves as the official event headquarters, and visitors are encouraged to begin there. But not all do.

Organizers combine counts of visitors who begin their visits at the chamber with survey numbers gathered at various event locations aimed at estimating what percentage of visitors don’t stop at the chamber to reach overall visitor estimates.

Those estimates for the first four years of the event show it’s growing at the rate of about 4,000 visitors per year.

Data about the ripple effect the event creates in the local economy is even tougher to come by, but Koenecke said anecdotal evidence abounds.

“We know that we are filling the lodging establishments,” Koenecke said.

Reedsburg resident Joann Mundth Douglas is one of many volunteers who’ve worked on behalf of the Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour.

Last year, she founded Reedsburg ArtsLink, a nonprofit aimed at fostering community via the arts.

“We’re working toward a community that’s vibrant with arts activity year-round,” Mundth Douglas says.

The organization’s projects have included installation in a new Reedsburg park of a former Farm/Art DTour work — a John Deere combine modified with illuminated stained glass panels — and a recent community mural project.

In Baraboo, Mayor Mike Palm spearheaded formation of an ad hoc Public Arts Committee in 2012 that eventually morphed into a standalone nonprofit. A newly completed community mural is one of the Baraboo group’s recent projects.

“Public art is part of the soul of the community,” Palm said. “We need public art in order to celebrate who we are.”

Also underway in Baraboo is a $3 million restoration of the historic Al. Ringling Theatre. Built in 1915 and referred to as “America’s Prettiest Playhouse,” the building stands as a centerpiece of the community’s arts programs, frequently hosting local plays and other performances. The building is closed during renovations, which are expected to be complete in February.

“I would argue that the theater itself is art — the actual structure,” Palm says.

In Sauk Prairie — the adjacent Wisconsin River cities of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City — the nonprofit River Arts, founded in 1997 to raise funds to build the Sauk Prairie School District’s River Arts Center, created an art gallery, River Arts on Water, four years ago.

“I’m proud of what we’re doing in the community and what we’re able to offer these local artists,” executive director Lindsey Giese Juarez says.

Koenecke says the Fest and DTour has lent a unique identity to the Reedsburg area that complements those in other Sauk County municipalities.

Spring Green has American Players Theatre, the House on the Rock, a popular art fair and the connection to famed 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Sauk Prairie has Bald Eagle Watching Days and the Cow Chip Throw. Baraboo has its historic connection with the Ringling Bros. Circus, the annual Big Top Parade & Circus Celebration and the historic Al. Ringling Theatre.

And Reedsburg now has the Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour.

“It has given us a little more visibility to a different kind of market that may not have thought about Reedsburg in the past,” Koenecke says.

Developing Efforts

From his desk in Juneau County, Terry Whipple, executive director of the Juneau County Economic Development Corp., has watched the growing success of the Fest and DTour with keen interest.

“I admire events that are unfolding like the Fermentation Fest,” Whipple said. “Not only are they a great example for us, but they’re near us and we will get some of the benefits from that.”

Whipple said the recent construction of the Woodside Sports Complex near Mauston, which draws youth sporting events from across the Midwest, offers its own placemaking possibilities.

The potent mix of arts and marketing hasn’t escaped notice in Wisconsin Dells, where they know some things about tourism.

Last month, Dells officials unveiled a multi-year, $40-million plan to create a River Arts District.

“It’s more than branding. It’s really about revitalization for the downtown area,” says Romy Snyder, executive director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau.

The Dells, whose trademarked slogan is “The Waterpark Capital of the World!” would like to be known as more than a Midwest magnet for summertime vacationers.

“Diversification is always a good thing,” Snyder says.

Officials hope to build on the natural beauty of the Wisconsin River, the original Dells tourist attraction, with a revitalization plan that includes ideas such as outdoor movie theaters, an amphitheater cut into the hillside and more — all with the goal of creating a 12-month destination that showcases visual, musical and culinary arts.

The future vitality of small-town Wisconsin, Whipple says, rests with those who understand that creating experience is the key to economic development in an age when automation means fewer people will work in industry, and where digital communications allow knowledge industry workers to choose where they live.

“Our Main Streets are changing and they’ll never return to what they once were as retail centers,” Whipple says. “They’re beginning to become our entertainment districts. Any community that is not exciting in some way — they’re dead, because they will never be able to attract or keep talent.”

That’s especially true in rural areas, Whipple says, where there’s a “tremendous opportunity for those in the arts.”

“Artists are key players in how regions grow and attract people who have choices,” Neuwirth says.

People who have choices often are the ones with the ideas that can invigorate a local economy.

“It’s not quick, and it doesn’t bring 500 jobs in one fell swoop, but it really does bring solid entrepreneurship and innovation to a community that you can build on,” Katz says. “Everybody’s trying to figure it out as they go along. But there are dozens or hundreds of initiatives, programs, art centers and totally cool things happening that give me hope.”

Katz says residents and local officials are at the forefront of the change.

“Now we’re just trying to get the state’s attention,” Katz says. “Wisconsin is missing a huge opportunity if it doesn’t start investing in this creative economy.”

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