Artist Amy Psinas starts to paint the background of a new mural she was hired to create on the grounds of the Shipshewana Trading Place flea market. Public art, as it known, is going in rural communities thanks in part to a push by the state. Staff photo by Patrick Redmond
Artist Amy Psinas starts to paint the background of a new mural she was hired to create on the grounds of the Shipshewana Trading Place flea market. Public art, as it known, is going in rural communities thanks in part to a push by the state. Staff photo by Patrick Redmond
SHIPSHEWANA — Retired Illinois art teacher Amy Psinas dips her paintbrush into a small plastic cup filled with teal-colored paint to start painting the background for a mural going on up a 40-foot wide brick wall that’s the west wall of a building just inside the flea market at Shipshewana Trading Place.

Psinas and her helper, her husband Kevin, with be spending part of their summer creating a new mural on the grounds of the famous Shipshewana flea market, part of a state program to help grow the “public art” in rural communities like LaGrange County.

The mural is being funded by state grants. The goal is to create a special location where visitors might want to take a photo of themselves to later share on social media, known as an Instagramable moment.

It’s all part of a movement that recognizes the importance of art in rural communities, and Sonya Nash, executive director of the LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Such works of public art, explained, can be a real driver of rural economies.

“Statistics indicate that art placemaking is important for urban and rural environments. Public art transcends all populations it transcends all socio-economic options,” she explained. “Public art is available to all races, all ages, and all demographic environments. It enhances the quality of life. It engages local residents and creates community pride, and that reflects back in a positive way that visitors want to go see.”

She’s not alone. Randy Cohen, vice president of research at Americans for the Arts art explains that art is a big economic driver of many local communities.

Cohen believes art is a fundamental component of vibrant rural communities—strengthening them socially, educationally, and economically—benefits that persist in prosperous and challenging times alike, and should be looked to as an essential tool in both economic recovery and reconnecting our communities.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the nation’s arts and culture sector—nonprofit, commercial, and education—is an $878 billion industry that supports 5.1 million jobs. That is 4.5 percent of the nation’s economy—a larger share of GDP than sectors such as transportation, and tourism.

Long forgotten when it came to the arts, states have finally discovered that rural communities can e reaping these economic benefits of the arts. In the 18 states in which 30% or more of the population lives in a rural area, the arts added $72.8 billion to those state economies and employed 636,815 workers.

In LaGrange County, museums are small, and generally acutely curated to local histories. But Nash said public art is there for all to enjoy, and people come to visit just for those public works.

Every community is different from the next and every community does have a story. And by connecting the dots between barn quilts, or between sculptures or murals or art festivals, in addition to natural resources, like our county parks, those are all that visitors are wanting to experience,” she said.

While murals seem to be the dominant medium in most communities, Angola boasts a large collection of sculptures. Jennifer Barclay, the director of economic development and planning for the city of Angola, said that’s no accident.

“It was one way to bring art into the downtown. We do have a historic district that is governed by a historic preservation commission and they adopted guidelines to protect the fabric of our historic structures,” she said. “So you’ll see they’re very hesitant to put murals on the historic brick of most of our downtown facades. We do have murals, they’re just not really in our downtown. They were able to still bring art into the downtown through the sculptures.”

Barclay said art, all art, is now part of the planning process in Angola. Each piece of public art helps define the city and helps express the character that makes Angola unique from other neighboring communities in a process called placemaking.

Placemaking is defined as a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, intended to create public spaces that improve urban vitality and promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.

“I think there’s a push for placemaking and art is a piece of that, in the world, potentially working from home and choosing where you can locate and live rather than being tied to wherever a company is located,” she said. “I think people are looking back to small towns, having that sort of atmosphere that they want to live in the small email the small downtown’s the character in placemaking is a piece of that. And throughout history, you’ll see art can drive placemaking for public spaces.”

Cohen goes on to say his research showed that in 2020, state governments invested $494 million in nonprofit arts organizations such as festivals, public art programs, museums, and art centers. These organizations provide both cultural and economic benefits to their community, he added, employing people locally, purchasing goods and services from neighboring businesses, and are major tourism drivers.

His research also showed that 72 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity, and 81 percent say “the arts are a “positive experience in a sometimes troubled world.”
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