The Northern Lakes Center for the Arts and the Rural Arts Management (RAM) Institute
I just turned se…seven…seventy years old. There—I said it. I got it out. But I am not retired, because I still find every minute of every hour of every day as interesting and as exciting as I did when I began this work thirty years ago. I love it! I am executive director of the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts, a small local arts agency located in rural west-central Wisconsin. My wife works with me as associate director. I supervise her (yeah—right!)—and yet somehow that has actually worked well for us over the years. We each seem to have strengths that support each other’s weaknesses. Our three daughters are well established in their own careers. Our house and vehicles are paid for—we are debt free. I have published three volumes of poetry in recent years, and we have spent time in Scotland the past two summers researching the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. I thoroughly enjoy giving readings from my work at public libraries, bookstores, and art centers. Both my wife and I are in very good health (although I could stand losing twenty pounds). Life is good!
But life is also moving on. Five years ago I began thinking seriously about who will succeed us at Northern Lakes. We were part of a group of local residents who established the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in 1989 as a comprehensive cultural center organized and designed to provide local residents with the opportunity to develop and share their creative talents and abilities with one another and with the general public. Since then, thousands of people have participated in arts education activities and performance and exhibit opportunities. And for every one of its twenty-three years of existence, Northern Lakes has operated with balanced budgets, which now total well over $100,000 annually. A healthy endowment provides scholarships to assure that no student is prohibited from taking lessons because they cannot afford them. This financial success results from strong community support. At $0.11 per capita, Wisconsin ranks forty-eighth among all fifty states in public funding of the arts.
If you want to be financially viable in Wisconsin, you had better be no-nonsense entrepreneurially creative and imaginative about the development of private financial support.
Amery, Wisconsin, home of the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts, is a very middle-class, rural community (with little poverty and also little extreme wealth), but local residents value what Northern Lakes offers their young people and themselves. Amery is a small, rural community of 2,850 people nestled among the rolling hills and lakes of northern west-central Wisconsin. The countryside is mostly beautiful farmland and relatively clean water recreation areas. The seasonal landscapes are spectacular. Amery is considered to be in the fifth ring of urban expansion from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, which means it is just beyond the edge of urban sprawl. The economic base centers around farming and related agribusiness, with tourism in an ever-expanding and growing second place. If you want to be financially viable in Wisconsin, you had better be no-nonsense entrepreneurially creative and imaginative about the development of private financial support. Our strong local focus has been integral to our success. So has our commitment to place. The Northern Lakes Center for the Arts is twenty-three years old, and for every one of those twenty-three years has operated with balanced budgets—only possible with strong local community support. Although many local residents have been involved with the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts over the years, they always knew that my wife and I would be there to provide the necessary leadership for the organization to develop, grow, and continue. They knew we would not leave them high and dry by moving from the area. We knew, however, that we would not live forever and needed to develop some means of leadership succession. The University of Wisconsin in Madison offers a master’s program in arts administration geared toward contract administration and urban concerns and perspectives. Graduates would not last two months in our rural area. Something else was needed to train and to identify someone to follow us in our work.
Hence the Rural Arts Management (RAM) Institute, begun by my wife and myself in 2006 and partnered with Arts Wisconsin in Madison. My own experience had involved nearly ten years as a high school English teacher and administrator, nearly ten years as a Community Action Program and economic development executive, and twenty-five years as an arts administrator. For five years I had also directed the Arts Management in Community Institutions program for the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts. The RAM Institute brings all of this together in one educational program and happens during six weekends over a six-month period. Starting with community support, what it is and why it is important, invited experts discuss legal considerations (incorporation and tax exemption), program development, budgeting, securing financial resources, and finally, marketing and participant recruitment—all focusing upon uniquely rural challenges, needs, and opportunities. To date, thirty-five very interesting individuals have participated in the program. Just to single out a few, graduates have gone back to their local communities in Ladysmith, and St. Croix Falls, and Viroqua, and Washburn, as well as Green Bay, and Madison, and Superior, and St. Paul, to develop and to operate financially viable arts organizations within their local communities.
Personally, I believe that we have ten good years left doing this work. The RAM Institute will help identify and develop who will follow us. The right people are out there. We have built it. They will come.