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Joanne_steele_pic Using Art in Vacant Storefronts to Rebuild a Small Town’s Future

Nothing portrays decline and defeat like a block full of empty storefronts. That is the situation in small town after small town throughout the United States right now.

With a rise in interest in “local,” – local food, authentic experiences, a slower pace of life and all that longing for something REAL, these empty small towns should be bustling with visitors, but they’re not.

And much of it has to do with perception. If a small town LOOKS empty, and FEELS in decline, what entrepreneur is going to be able to visualize him or herself creating a successful business there?

What visitor is going to stop long enough for even a bite to eat or an overnight in a charming local mom & pop motel?

Changing perception is the first step in turning around a small town.

Taking an idea from larger communities, small towns are beginning to turn to their arts community for help.

Filling those vacant storefronts with art has been a successful economic revitalization project for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Eugene, Oregon is also filling vacant storefronts with art.

And now, Dunsmuir, California, population barely 2000, is readying five storefronts for the work of local artists.

Why Economic Revitalization through art?

“Since the beginning of time, artists have sought out inexpensive, interesting places to make art,” muses Siskiyou Arts Council Executive Director, Lauri Sturdivant. “They move into small towns, crumbling lofts in cities, off-the-beaten path districts in order to live cheaply and make art. Then, restaurants follow and little stores and curious shoppers and all of a sudden, the area becomes ‘trendy.’ Prices go up and artists move on, creating opportunity in a new backwater location.”

In Dunsmuir, the Chamber of Commerce Revitalization Committee, local building owners, and regional artists are working together to revitalize a charming but empty downtown by filling the windows with art.

“We’re excited to have something for our restaurant patrons to do before and after coming here for dinner,” notes restaurant owner, Nancy LaMott. “Dunsmuir has a safe, walkable downtown with charming historic buildings. What could be better than a nice dinner at one of our town’s restaurants followed by a stroll past beautiful art displays in storefront windows.”

I’ll keep you posted on Dunsmuir’s success. Action follows perception, and Dunsmuir is confident that beautiful window displays will help attract new business to town.

Stay tuned….

You can read and comment on all of Joanne Steele’s posts on Rural Tourism Marketing on her Rural Tourism Marketing Blog.

See all posts by Joanne Steele.

Stephanie Zack says
04. 4.11 // 11:21 AM
I couldn't agree more with the points made in this article. It has been the case in communities - large and small - and too numerous to name, that revitalization follows the development of a robust arts community. There are many spaces in Yreka, too, that would be perfect for artist work and live/work spaces. Two examples of community efforts in this direction are Paducah, KY ( and Bradenton, FL (
Renee Getreu says
05. 2.11 // 10:27 AM
Great points Joanne. I have never heard it put so succinctly. Currently I am working with a musician who has been offered an opportunity in Dunsmuir to help with this very type of process. He plans to include visual artists as well.

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