Lanesboro Arts Center's Surprise Sculpture program brought together local children to create art that was placed throughout the community. The Lanesboro Arts Campus campaign will see the St. Mane Theatre undergo a renovation, a poetry parking lot created and many other changes to make the city an art center.
Lanesboro Arts Center's Surprise Sculpture program brought together local children to create art that was placed throughout the community. The Lanesboro Arts Campus campaign will see the St. Mane Theatre undergo a renovation, a poetry parking lot created and many other changes to make the city an art center.
The small town of Lanesboro has a big vision. It's a vision that involves the entire community and seeks to benefit the town and region economically, educationally and culturally. It is seen by supporters as a way to more clearly define Lanesboro's identity and set the town up for long-term success.

Though it has been in the works for 13 years, the Lanesboro Arts Campus project has been quickly evolving recently with state and national attention adding to the momentum. However, there is one question that many residents of the region may still have concerning the arts campus: What is it?

Any visitor or resident to Lanesboro quickly becomes aware of the unique qualities of the town. From its historic and nationally recognized downtown, to its bed and breakfasts, to its location and recreation opportunities along the Root River, the town has been enjoying the fruits of a burgeoning tourist industry for a number of decades. Its focus on culture and arts is noted by the presence of the Commonweal Theatre Company, St. Mane Theatre, Lanesboro Arts Center and the diverse programming at these sites. However, most of these arts and cultural experiences are limited to what one can experience in a building or singular outdoor location. The Lanesboro Arts Campus will, and is actually already, changing the way visitors and residents experience the arts.

John Davis, executive director of the Lanesboro Arts Center, moved to Lanesboro in 2000 with 13 years of experience in impacting a community's economic future through the arts. New York Mills, Minn., had seen a dramatic turnaround in economic and population issues as Davis and many volunteers made it a center for tourism and the arts in the '90s.

In Lanesboro, Davis discovered the building blocks for an idea that would make the entire town a walkable arts center. Six months new to the town, Davis had pitched his idea of an arts campus and had it rejected by all the arts organizations in the town.

It took time, but by the time the recession of 2008 hit, the Lanesboro Arts Campus idea was gaining stronger footing as a shared vision between the city, Chamber of Commerce and local arts organizations.

In 2010, the Lanesboro Art Council and Cornucopia Art Center had merged to become the Lanesboro Arts Center and the arts campus project continued to evolve and worked its way to the top of the priority action list.

Building blocks

Pieces of the evolving arts campus started coming together over a decade ago. Each piece falls into one of three categories: buildings that house the arts, pedestrian walkways and arts in public spaces.

The arts campus project was planned to come together in three phases. The first phase commenced in 2001, when a community iron pour was held under the guidance of local artist Karl Unnasch. This event inspired the creation of public art medallions strategically placed throughout the community in order to promote the town's walkability. The medallions have also inspired the yet-to-be-completed Gateway Sculpture Park located near the Historic Walking Bridge, which was renovated in 2001.

The St. Mane Theatre and Lanesboro Gallery building were purchased during this first phase and the pedestrian underpass by County Road 8 was constructed. This first phase cost $600,000.

The project is now in its second phase, which is focused on a capital campaign for the project. Other pieces of the project will also be completed during this time. For example, the Poetry Parking Lot is a developing idea that will transform the parking lot by the Bass Pond into a space where community-themed poetry is featured on signs.

Today, visitors can walk from the parking lot along the pedestrian underpass to the Gateway Sculpture Park and Historic Walking Bridge. The walking bridge connects everything to downtown where the medallions, gallery building, Commonweal and St. Mane Theatre are located. Guiding visitors and encouraging the town's walkability is an artful way-finding system that highlights other local attractions.

The fundraising campaign is seeking to raise $1.1 million for each aspect of the second phase. This provides for continuing project planning, gallery building improvements, St. Mane Theatre improvements for a future residency center and many other aspects of the arts campus. Almost $800,000 of the needed amount has already been raised as the arts campus project continues to gain momentum and recognition on a state and national level.

An inspiring idea

Davis and capital campaign committee members Joe O'Connor and Courtney Bergey recently returned from the National Innovation Summit for Arts and Culture held in Denver, Colo. The summit saw 250 attendees representing 14 communities, many of who were from metro areas.

Through an application process, Lanesboro was selected to present the arts campus idea at the conference, which was streamed live around the world. In 12 minutes, the arts campus vision was shared with yet another group of people who were quickly converted to the idea of moving the art center concept into a larger area outside a building.

"It's a simple idea," Davis stated, adding that the complexity comes when trying to re-imagine what a community can be and seeing where the arts fit in. Davis has spoken with audiences around the state and nation about the arts campus idea, but remains focused on the work still needing to be done in town.

"We are using arts as a tool to improve the assets of the community," Davis explained adding that changes to Lanesboro would be subtle and integrate with the community's current assets and history. That process of integration has been largely aided by the successful capital campaign, which has attracted inspired donors ever since the campaign began a little over a year ago. Capital campaign chairman Joe O'Connor called the support from foundations in the state and nation the "most amazing development" the arts campus has seen.

Among the most prominent awards the arts campus has received was the recent Artplace America grant worth $313,000 and the distinction of being in the Top 12 Small-Town ArtPlaces in America for 2013.

Davis called that award a "real boost and validation for the concept." The arts campus has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans for the Arts/Ovation TV, Minnesota Historical Society, the McKnight Foundation and F&M Community Bank in Preston, among others.

Vickie Benson, the arts program director for the McKnight Foundation, shared her opinion as to why the arts campus idea is generating so much support. "Lanesboro is leading in terms of placing arts experiences, artists and the arts at the center of everything in the town," she said. "Others in the state and county have and will continue to watch Lanesboro."

Davis echoed the sentiment, adding that one of the goals of the arts campus is to become a model for emulation. Having inspired many throughout the nation already, that goal may already be complete.

Along with seeking outside sources of funding, the committee working on the arts campus project has been meeting with community members and businesses in a one-on-one format to seek not only monetary support, but ideas for the project.

A public meeting with the arts campus' planning firm HKGi will be held on Dec. 17.

"I'm impressed by the local involvement and passion for the community," said HKGi landscape architect Greg Ingraham who said he felt a synergy in Lanesboro unlike many other projects the firm has worked on.

The meeting will hear from stakeholders, engage school children and inform the public on the overall concepts of the project. Davis encouraged people to come forward with their ideas.


A mass local fundraising campaign will commence in the future, but the plan is to acquire as much from outside sources as possible. In fact, another of the project's aim is to bring money into the community.

Davis explained that the art center's relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and the city of Lanesboro isn't to leverage funds from them, but to create ways to leverage funds for them. The economic benefit seen in New York Mills, where 17 new businesses moved in and jobs increased by 40 percent within a few years, is being sought after for Lanesboro. There would be untold regional impacts as well.

"We want to make everyone aware of what the arts contribute to the community," said Julie Kiehne, executive director for the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce. She explained that through the arts campus project, Lanesboro is more clearly defining its identity and working to be the premier small town cultural and arts destination in the Midwest.

The progress being seen, she said, "matches the strengths, skills and talents of people who work here."

Beside local impacts, Davis foresees many partnerships and stronger bonds forming between towns in the region because of the arts campus vision.

"It's not about a town of 754, but more about the region," he said.

O'Connor said his anticipation over future educational and creative programming is focused on the third phase of the project. "Art unlocks the creativity in individuals," he added.

Bergey, who works with students in after-school arts programs, said the arts campus could bring people back to the community who have left and new families as well. "We see this as an investment and hope to make it something bigger than what we ever thought."