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On a windy day in this western Minnesota city, an artist peered out from an old gazebo, painting the historic building before her. In a nearby cafe, another artist led a rehearsal for a documentary play about mental health. That night, inside a downtown storefront, eight artists gathered for a workshop on business skills.

All three projects tied back, in some way, to the same organization — Springboard for the Arts. The nonprofit’s work in Fergus Falls poses a bold question: Can art transform a small town?

Springboard is making the case for artist-driven development in this city of 13,400 still grappling with the closing of the Fergus Falls State Hospital, once the state’s largest mental institution. It’s bringing national grant money to town, becoming an example of how the National Endowment for the Arts can support the Midwest’s rural reaches. It’s tackling a conundrum facing rural communities across the country, luring young adults back to their hometowns. And it's hoping to make Fergus Falls a national model for using art to build strong small cities.

“Every rural place is working to reinvent itself right now,” said Michele Anderson, Springboard’s rural program director. “There’s so much transition because of agriculture, industries going away …

“Artists are exactly the kind of people needed to come up with creative, breakthrough ideas.”

St. Paul-based Springboard opened its rural outpost here six years ago. From its corner storefront in what has become a bustling downtown, staff members train Fergus Falls artists to run their small businesses, helping with everything from copyrights to Pinterest, while attracting artists from around the country for weekslong residencies. This summer, the nonprofit announced a new twist on that artist residency program — calling for artists who grew up in the area and moved away to “reconnect with their home region.”

“It’s helped change the narrative in this community,” said Mayor Ben Schierer. “There’s an optimism now, there’s an energy that we can do these things, we can make this a more vibrant place. The arts have been a huge part of that.”

Rural roots

Springboard’s staffers know Fergus Falls can draw young, creative artists to the community. They’re young, creative artists themselves.

A pianist, composer and creative writer, Anderson was living in Portland, Ore., when Springboard took the Lake Region Arts Council up on a wild idea — launching a Fergus Falls outpost. Having grown up in Dundas, Minn., Anderson was “longing” to return to her small-town roots. She had spent summers in the Fergus Falls area, where her parents retired on land homesteaded by her great-grandparents.

“For me, it was like coming to my second home,” said Anderson, 35.

From the office’s opening in 2011 to 2016, the NEA made four grants totaling $145,000 for Springboard’s work here. Springboard used that money to attract another $1.2 million. This summer, the office got more good news: two NEA grants totaling $175,000. One will go toward building a workbook that could be used in rural communities across the country.

When the 2016 election exposed deep divides between rural and urban voters, “a lot of people in the arts world were like, let’s go do stuff with rural communities now,” Anderson said. “Well, we’ve been doing this. You’re not just going to save these towns from themselves.

“You have to be embedded in them and hire people who are from them.”

Sensitive to the fact that it’s based in St. Paul, Springboard has focused on nabbing outside money — including funding from the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation — rather than competing with local nonprofits, Anderson said. “We instead brought money in.”

When, earlier this year, President Donald Trump targeted the NEA for elimination, Anderson was happy to tell Fergus Falls’ story. That story is not, she noted, “Oh, Springboard opened and Fergus Falls suddenly had jobs.” The reality is more nuanced, Anderson said. The arts are “contributing to the quality of life so that more people want to live here and take those jobs that people are having a hard time filling.”

Schierer put it this way: “If your community’s going to be alive, you need a thriving arts scene. It’s not a bonus anymore.”

Building creativity

With quick, sure movements, Mary Proenza unsnapped and unfolded her portable easel. She leaned against it her latest work: a detailed painting of “the Kirkbride,” as the shuttered Fergus Falls State Hospital is known to locals.

“I think the Kirkbride is such an interesting place with its history and architecture,” Proenza said, “and also with its world of suggestion.” Knowing that it was once a mental institution: “How does that make one feel?”

One of this summer’s resident artists, Proenza came to Fergus Falls via New York City, where she had been working as an adjunct professor since 2011.

Springboard hosts 20 to 30 artists a year, putting them up in newly renovated apartments on the Kirkbride campus, offering them weekly stipends and customizing their time here: Some artists host classes for young people. Some put on gallery shows.

Although it’s not required, many artists have focused their creative work on the Kirkbride, the brick-and-sandstone campus that spans an area as big as eight football fields. The city-owned buildings have inspired paintings and prints, installations and performance art.

Springboard has put artists at the center of the conversation about the Kirkbride, using its first NEA grant in 2011 to launch its creative work there. They’ve hosted artist-led workshops about the building. They commissioned a play based on interviews and story swaps with residents. This month, as they have for five years, they’ll host an arts and history weekend there, with music and meditations on mental illness.

Debate around the fate of the Kirkbride has divided this community since the hospital closed for good in 2005. After years of false starts and failed proposals, the City Council is still weighing whether to renovate the campus atop the hill or tear it down.

But middle ground has also emerged. Earlier this year, Schierer encouraged the city to take “strong action,” deconstructing parts of the campus while preserving the most historically significant buildings.

No decisions have been made. But Schierer credited Springboard with inspiring fresh ideas about the building.

“I think it’s made it more viable to a lot of people,” Schierer said. “They see it’s something more than just an abandoned building.”

Coming home

A 2017 report shows that Fergus Falls has an outsized arts scene. While the city’s population ranked 13th among participating Minnesota cities, the size of its arts economy ranked ninth — ahead of St. Louis Park, Northfield and Red Wing, according to a statewide report from the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. That report, which counted spending by arts organizations and audiences, tallied the economic impact of Fergus Falls’ arts scene at $2.96 million, with state and local money contributing $271,000 toward that total.

To be sure, one nonprofit can’t take all the credit. The arts have a long, strong history in Fergus Falls, several residents said. In the early 1990s, for example, residents raised $1 million to renovate the Fergus Theatre, making it the home of A Center for the Arts. They blocked the demolition of an old, downtown hotel called the Kaddatz. Rehabbed by Minneapolis-based Artspace, the building now houses artists lofts above an acclaimed nonprofit art gallery.

“We have been a part of that momentum, but I would never claim that we started it,” Anderson said. “I think that’s what’s cool about it: You can’t pinpoint it to one thing.”

But she and her staff members see progress: starting with a list of the young, artistic people who have moved back.

Returning to Fergus Falls for his father’s funeral, Alex Blondeau discovered the journal he kept in high school. In one of its last entries, Blondeau had reflected on his hope to return to this city along the Otter Tail River. “I had forgotten how much I loved growing up in this town,” said Blondeau, 38, a photographer.

So he and his wife started talking about moving. “But we knew, too, that our kids and my son, in particular, were interested in and excelling in the arts,” he said. “We wanted to have a community they could thrive in.”

At some point, he called Naomi Schliesman, Springboard’s artist development coordinator. “Naomi, is this stuff all really happening?” she remembered him asking. “Do you think my family could move back?”

Schliesman, a visual artist and sculptor, assured him it was real.

So a year ago, after his wife got the OK to work remotely, Blondeau began digging a hole in the ground, on 7.5 acres near the city limits. He’s building his family’s house by hand.