Radically Rural: Art as an Amplifier for Community Connection

** This article was originally published for the Daily Yonder

Artists and art collectives help small towns with creative problem-solving during the pandemic.

While the saying goes, “Life is not a dress rehearsal,” the arts provide a place to play out possible scenarios for real life.

“The arts are operating very much that way right now,” said Barbara Shafer Bacon, co-director of Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts.

Her organization serves more than 6,000 individuals from over 1,500 organizations nationwide, providing research, networking, and collaborative problem-solving to spark civic and social change.

Shafer Bacon noted that since the onset of the pandemic, “Folks are trying stuff that is helping others to keep moving forward, or backward if they need to.” For instance, when outdoor dining was identified as a viable solution for reopening restaurants, Shafer Bacon witnessed various arts organizations and individual artists participate in local councils to define safety needs and logistics.

Ultimately, their discussions “caused the realization that they should just close the street,” she explained. Communities across the country jumped on board, maximizing space for outdoor eating and creating a safe, outdoor performance space simultaneously. This allowed artists to book gigs throughout the summer and gave restaurants the added attraction of entertainment.

The reopening of summer camps unfolded in a similar way, with arts organizations in specific communities (often larger, urban ones) creating a roadmap for others. In Burlington, Vermont, the mayor encouraged an art camp that usually serves up to 500 kids to still open. Local experts crafted a model that hosted nearly 200 children.

“They shared the work they did with other art camps in Vermont, and in the end, seven camps, maybe more, did open,” Shafer Bacon said. Now that same knowledge is useful to the school districts.”

Though the arts have played a significant problem-solving role, she wonders if“Against so many needs, will they stay as a central tenet?” Rural towns with venues, museums, and historic attractions are desperate to get back in action.

But balancing the needs of schools and other businesses can tip the scale. The key, Shafer Bacon said, is the question of “How can we find common opportunities to support multiple sectors?”

Rachel Balaban, the co-founder of Artists and Scientists as Partners, was working within that cross-section pre-pandemic and views it as even more urgent now. Her organization builds partnerships between medical professionals and those they serve via the arts. “I think it’s a way of connecting on an incredibly deep level,” Balaban said.

At Brown University, she founded an undergraduate program to bring pre-med students in contact with people with movement impairments, such as Parkinson’s disease. “The impetus behind this idea was how can we let people know how incredibly powerful the arts are for people to heal, to live their lives fully,” she said.

Data shows the undergraduate students she engages are at high risk for isolation on their college campuses, and the same is true for the primarily elderly population that attends Balaban’s dance classes. Though they would likely never meet otherwise, the two groups come together through her program.

They typically gather in person but only by phone or Zoom now, and even that alone provides a critical lifeline. She has one 90-year-old dancer who nailed Zoom within the first week so she wouldn’t miss a class. Balaban said the pandemic “amplifies how more than anything, connection is what counts.”

She is currently undertaking a research project to illustrate how powerful the arts can be for providing healing and belonging. “We know inherently,” she said. “It’s how do we convince the rest of the world that operates on data?”

Shafer Bacon said that in recent years, she’s seen exciting progress in utilizing the arts and the creative economy to transform communities. But the pandemic has created “kind of an abrupt halt on this superpower that communities were really discovering.”

To keep the momentum, artists and arts organizations, like Balaban’s, are translating their community engagement activities online. An example is James Rojas, an urban planner, community activist, and artist. He is well known for his community-visioning method, which uses art-making as its medium.

His in-person workshops are typically bursting with pipe cleaners, found objects, and other materials for creating maps to optimize communities. Now, according to Shafer Bacon, “He has adapted that for a group of like 30 people online, each using what they have around the house.” This has made his work accessible to communities virtually anywhere, allowing them to leverage the pause of the pandemic to plan for the future.

Balaban hopes that as communities consider what they truly value, they will recognize what a critical role the arts play. “When so many other things are falling away, the arts are something that people can grasp,” she said. “I think what the pandemic is doing is it’s helping us understand what’s really important.”


The column is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural leaders that last year brought together almost 600 rural leaders from 25 states. 

In 2020, Radically Rural: Remote will feature six tracks on September 24, focusing on key sectors of importance to rural America: Main streets, entrepreneurship, community journalism, arts and culture, land and communities, and clean energy. Schafer Bacon and Balaban are panelists for the session, “Community Connection Starts With the Arts.” For more information about Radically Rural: Remote, visit the organization’s website or contact them via email at info@radicallyrural.com

Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship Key Partners

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