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Ann Thompson opened Billy Maple Tree’s to feature the works of artists in the region nearly eight years ago. She knew the area was home to many talented artists, and was confident that Milan’s growing identity as a community supporting the arts would help draw customers. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Arts Economy creating a future in Upper Minnesota River Valley

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When Ann Thompson opened a store in Milan featuring the works of local artists, there were some who thought she was taking the kind of financial risk more often made on Wall Street than the Main Street of a town of only 369 souls.

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She felt otherwise.

She knew the Upper Minnesota River Valley was home to many talented artists, most with other jobs to support themselves and no time to open retail outlets of their own. And, she believed Milan was building enough of a reputation as an “artsy’’ locale to draw the customers needed.

“I’m so happy to provide an outlet for artists,’’ said Thompson. “People like the fact they can come here and buy something made in Minnesota, not China, uniquely Minnesota, and uniquely western Minnesota.”

Almost eight years after its opening, Billy Maple Tree’s is continuing to draw customers and offer an ever-expanding repertoire of works.

Thompson is among a small, but growing contingent of entrepreneurs building an arts economy in the Upper Minnesota River Valley counties including Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

Much of the development is focused along the river, from an art gallery in the K.K. Berge Building in Granite Falls, exhibits at Java River in Montevideo, to art classes at the Milan Village Arts School. Frogs on the Footbridge, a store that also features the works of local artists as does Billy Maple Tree’s, recently opened in downtown Granite Falls.

 Perhaps nothing exemplifies the emergence of the developing arts economy better than the annual Upper Minnesota River Arts Crawl known as the Meander. Launched nine years ago, it draws visitors from across Minnesota and neighboring states to view the works of 45 artists at their studios scattered throughout the five counties during an October weekend.

“It puts us on the map,’’ said Kristi Fernholz, who coordinates the annual event for the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, and is an artist herself. Her photography celebrates the landscape of the region.

Artists participating in last year’s Meander reported total sales of $94,076, a 9 percent increase from the previous year, according to Fernholz. Artists reported hosting anywhere from 70 to 1,100 visitors at the individual studios.

Surveys showed that 44 percent of the visitors came from within the five-county region. Another 20 percent came from greater Minnesota outside the region, 23 percent from the metro area, and 13 percent from out of state.

Ron Proep welcomes lots of visitors from around Minnesota and outside of its borders to Milan as the director for the Milan Village Arts School. Started originally in 1988, it acquired a former country school in 1995 and ever since has focused on offering classes in traditional, Scandinavian arts.

It also hosts an annual, quirky spoon carving festival that has been growing in popularity in ways no one would have expected. Last year, Derbyshire, England, hosted its own international spoon carving festival modeled directly on Milan’s, said Proep.

Perhaps most important, the Milan Village Arts School has helped grow the region’s own artists.

Some of the students who have taken its classes — silversmith Jean Menden of rural Boyd among them — have gone on to create and sell art on their own.

Proep — who is Thompson’s husband — is among those who believe that an arts economy is part of an overall strategy to promote lots of small, entrepreneurial endeavors of all types. “If you try to build a community on one industry you’re headed to disaster,’’ said Proep. “More people are coming into the area with a whole range of businesses, and the arts is just one part of that.’’

Exactly the point that Michelle Anderson, rural program director of Springboard for the Arts, Fergus Falls, is making to communities across western Minnesota. Anderson points to the success New York Mills enjoyed when it opened a Regional Cultural Center in 1992 to promote the arts.

In the following six years, a steady decline was reversed and the small community added 17 new businesses and 350 jobs.

Springboard for the Arts helps artists acquire business skills and to work together. She pointed to the Meander as one of the benefits that can follow when artists work together.

“We need to acknowledge artists as entrepreneurs, and when we do the community can take them more seriously and value them as small business people,’’ she said. 

The revenues artists earn, and the spin-off business created by visitors to their studios, is really just a very small part of what a rural arts economy is about. It’s the less tangible things that matter more, said Anderson.

Rural areas can re-write their own narrative and tell the world they are a great place to live by fostering the arts.

“You kind of take control of what your story is,’’ said Anderson.

She cited a community play, the River Walk hosted along the Minnesota River in Granite Falls at the start of last year’s Meander, as an example of how the narrative is being developed.

It’s an ever-improving story, and the value of embracing the arts goes well beyond the commerce it can generate. “There’s those things you can directly measure,’’ said Fernholz, pointing to the Meander and businesses such as Billy Maple Tree’s as examples. “But there’s also the sense of community pride, and getting good things accomplished and making it a good place to be and people want to move there.’’

Thompson points not to her store, but the former Milan School building as her measure of the progress. A few years ago one artist rented studio space in it. Today, there are five.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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