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Upper Minnesota River Valley counties provide fertile grounds for growing arts development

The Upper Minnesota River Valley counties have long been fertile soil for artists. A proposal to promote the arts for economic development in the rural setting has allowed many to discover the diverse and talented crop of artists through the annual Meander Arts Crawl.

Actor Sam Hathaway takes center stage in an outdoor play held for the start of the Meander in 2012 in Granite Falls.
Actor Sam Hathaway takes center stage in an outdoor play held for the start of the 2012 Meander Arts Crawl in Granite Falls.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo
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APPLETON — The concept of promoting an arts economy in a rural setting was unfamiliar to most people in the Upper Minnesota River Valley when Ortonville artist Don Sherman proposed doing just that in the early 2000s.

Fortunately, his proposal fell on the receptive ears of Patrick Moore, owner of Java River Cafe in downtown Montevideo at the time, and Dawn Hegland, executive director of the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission.

They brought the idea to a few of their artist friends and business owners in Ortonville and Montevideo, as well as the latter community’s economic development agency.

With a collection of artists on board, $500 from the Montevideo EDA and some supporting businesses, the trio offered the first ever arts crawl in the Upper Minnesota Valley counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine in 2004.

That first Meander proved successful, said Moore. It generated $12,000 in sales for the participating artists, brought recognition and attention to the individual artists, and let the world know what the Meader’s organizers had long maintained — this rural region was fertile ground for the arts.

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It also proved that the arts are something much greater than a cottage industry for the region.

Visitors view the photographic works of Gene Stukel of Granite Falls during a previous Meander.
Visitors view the photographic works of Gene Stukel of Granite Falls during the 2021 Meander Arts Crawl through the Upper Minnesota River Valley.
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The Meander has proven that point 18 years running now. While the 2022 Meander numbers have yet to be tallied, those from 2021 show just how big of impact it has on the region. The 2021 sales to artists totaled nearly $140,000.

“It’s a wonderful story of regional collaboration,” Moore said, noting further that that collaboration is a three-legged stool. The Meander is only possible because of the joint cooperation of artists, businesses and government.

Previous Meander coverage:
The Meander Upper Minnesota River Arts crawl takes place this weekend with a celebratory kickoff on Friday and the return of in-studio visits on Saturday and Sunday at locations across five counties.
Neva Foster needed something "non-medical" in her life when she enrolled in an arts class while in her early 40's and juggling the demands of career, motherhood and marriage. Today, her works are introducing many to the quiet, meditative world of beauty she discovered.
GRANITE FALLS -- Ashley Hanson determined 12 years ago that what she called her true north was to use the arts to build rural communities. Hanson, of Granite Falls, is now among 24 people from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Native comm...
GRANITE FALLS -- For over three decades, Dale and Jo Pederson have built a reputation for the rustic furniture and timber frame structures they craft from willows and trees they harvest from the woodlands of the Upper Minnesota River Valley they ...
MILAN -- It might seem a very lonesome endeavor to practice art amidst the open, rolling farmlands of the Upper Minnesota River Valley. John Larson knows better. Although the artists are scattered over a five-county area the size of Rhode Island ...
Art and life are one in the same for Tamara Isfeld, but here's the rub. "I will never live long enough to do all the different types of art I want to do,'' said Isfeld. That she has the talent to do all that she tries so well is just one of the r...
GRANITE FALLS -- Having already told the history of the Upper Minnesota River Valley from the ice age to the era of pioneer settlement, what more can playwrights Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord teach us?...

The benefits are many.

It’s estimated that the event, held always the first weekend in October, attracts upwards of 2,500 people who visit the studios of the 40 or so participating artists each year, according to Kristi Fernholz. She is an artist and serves as facilitator for the annual event in her role as a planner with the Upper Minnesota River Valley RDC.

Participants who visit the artists receive “passports,” which helps the RDC learn about the visitors themselves and what they think of the Meander. In 2021, the RDC learned that 39% of the Meander participants came from within the five-county area, meaning more than one half came from outside the region.

The passports data further showed that 27% came from Greater Minnesota outside of the five counties, while 17% came from the metropolitan area and another 17% came from outside of the state.

Surveys of participants have made it clear — the quality of the art, the pleasure of meeting and chatting with artists, and the chance to enjoy the fall scenery of the rural counties are what they value the most, according to Fernholz.

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Artist Doug Pederson in Lac qui Parle County welcomes visitors to his rural studio.
Artist Doug Pederson of Lac qui Parle County welcomes visitors to his rural studio with a colorful sign and a helpful arrow pointing to the entrance. Pederson is one of many artists who has taken part in the Meander more than once.
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A full 80% of those visiting Meander artists and studios rated their experience as “excellent,” she said.

Keeping it genuine has been critical. From the start, Moore and Ferhnolz said participating artists insisted that the Meander’s focus remain entirely on quality art.

The lineup of Meander artists has changed as some artists retire, and new and emerging artists get their opportunity. The 2022 Meander featured six new artists.

While the artists and region do enjoy an economic benefit, Fernholz and Moore believe the bigger rewards are not necessarily economic. The event helps bolster pride in the region as local residents hear visitors to the area voice their love for what they find.

meander Tokheims IMG_20211001_145358720 - Tokheim.jpg
The Tokheim Studio, displaying the stoneware and works of Gene and Lucy Tokheim, in Lac qui Parle County is among the favorite Meander destinations.
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Visitors view the works of Meander artist Deb Connolly at her rural, Swift County studio.
Visitors view the works of Meander artist Deb Connolly at her rural Swift County studio during the 2021 Meander Arts Crawl.
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The works of a number of Big Stone County artists are exhibited at the Red Barn located at 35131 760th Avenue, Ortonville.
The works of a number of Big Stone County artists are exhibited at the Red Barn located at 35131 760th Avenue, Ortonville.
Contributed
The annual Upper Minnesota River Valley Arts Crawl known as the Meander features opportunities to visit with artists and see their works in the studios where they work.
The annual Upper Minnesota River Valley Arts Crawl known as the Meander features opportunities to visit with artists and see their works in the studios where they work.
Contributed
An actor leads fellow actors and audience members in a walking theater presentation marking the start of the 2012 Meander in Granite Falls.
An actor leads fellow actors and audience members in a walking theater presentation marking the start of the 2012 Meander in Granite Falls.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
What To Read Next
The museum showcases a wide variety of people, places and things from the 150 years of the county's past.
Exhibits on display in the next month
Fine arts and student performances at area colleges
Southwest Minnesota Arts Council events in the next month