Lessons of departure: the heart and mind of a rural town in a tourists’ economy

Lanesboro Arts Center is beautiful. The space is bright, open, welcoming, and full of activity. They regularly host artists and writers to use the space as a getaway to focus on projects, as well as workshops and seminars for the community. When the directors offered to show my work there, they also kindly took the time to make sure I would have a place to stay.

Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts
Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts

Having said that, as nice as the reception was, getting to spend time in Lanesboro itself was the real reward. Lanesboro is small, with a population of under 750 people. I stayed with a couple and their two Labrador retrievers in an old Victorian House, who spoiled me rotten, from the food to the stories to the history of their art collection to their library, which could keep me busy for eons.

The couple bought the house to renovate a year ago. They are among several people I met who are newcomers to the town, who all moved there for similar motivations. These are people who either changed jobs or shifted priorities after the economic crash in 2008, when they got laid off, when they realized that their jobs were not so secure, or when city life lost the glamor and glitz that initially drew them there. So they’re moving (back) to towns like Lanesboro, and inevitably invite the locals’ skepticism. It’s just like immigration/migration anywhere…zoom in on the tiniest communities, and it’s the same game as everywhere else, where the only thing that’s different is the scale. The long-term locals are hesitant of the rise of tourism and resulting, changing legislation needed to accommodate it. Lanesboro teems with tens of thousands of tourists in the summer who come for the trails, the river tubing, the respite. While some residents are at odds with this, the reality is that without tourism, small towns like this one are dying. It’s undeniable that those motivated to move to these towns are the ones who can…the ones who have jobs in Rochester or the twin cities, or the ones who can telecommute for their professions.

So these are the questions they face. What does it mean to fund things like education and the arts in rural towns? What responsibility do the new residents have, now that many of them head the committees that will guide the city’s economic growth? What does it mean to justify sustainability with economic needs?

It should come as no surprise that I believe access to the arts and humanities is vital, especially in either secluded or impoverished areas. In a society that measures success by the dollar, short-term thinking will tell us that these kids are better off learning a vocational trade, or focusing on math and science if they are to have any chance of pursuing higher learning. But in the long run, this is exactly what keeps society stratified and makes it harder and harder to achieve a balance in power. This is what makes it hard to have conversations on a local level about the social and political topics that affect us as a nation. Creativity and the humanities become the territory of the privileged class. Even then, in a world that is increasingly commercialized, the worth of creativity depends upon what it is useful for or how sellable it is. We risk losing out on how creativity can challenge us, and on its role in making us capable of being equal partners in a society that we’re all responsible for shaping. We risk losing out on how the arts can not only superficially entertain us, but give depth and richness to our lives.

Someone recently said to me, “I like reading because it helps me empathize with other people.” A mentor of mine recently also said, “I don’t make art because I need to prove anything. I make art because I’m alive.”

adventures-in-science-lanesboro
At a re-sale shop in Lanesboro

In perhaps a perfect parallel with my trip to Lanesboro for the art show, I just recently got accepted to do a public art project with a charter school in Milwaukee. I may have been the interviewee, but the moment that sold me happened while I was waiting for the interviewers. I struck up a conversation with the science teacher who said, “We take the class down by the river to learn about its role in the ecosystem as well as what it means economically for the city. But above that, we emphasize how the river is not only useful, but enjoyable, and that’s not something we should ever overlook.”

In another appropriate parallel, I was listening to an audiobook during my drive between Madison and Lanesboro. The book is called Excellent Sheep, which thankfully isn’t as campaign-y as the title seemed to be. I appreciated how comprehensive the book is. The author addresses the history of how our academic system evolved to reward success over learning, and how this affects people on every social tier. He addresses the social pressure for children with privilege to maintain status or jump through even tougher hoops. He addresses the pressures on underprivileged children who successfully break through their constraints to then maintain the same things that keep the class system alive. He addresses how often in our conversations about increasing diversity in academia and business, we over-focus on race and under-focus on socioeconomic status. If we truly believe in diversity and equal opportunity, then we need to be as diligent about what we do for poor, rural white areas as what we do to address urban areas, immigration, and affirmative action. That is how we begin to reach inclusiveness, rather than perpetuating a mutual ignorance that allows all of us to be leveraged across party lines.

The trouble I noticed in these rural areas is that even when the new residents who don’t have kids still want to fund public education and understand the necessity of it, there just aren’t enough kids or young people moving in who are starting families. It’s hard to bring challenging material to a small community when as few as four families per class have power over what they want the schools to teach. It’s also hard to bring challenging material to a town that depends on tourism to reinvigorate the economy.

Just walking through the house where I stayed sent a chill through me. It was beautiful and I felt spoiled and pampered by my hosts. I also felt sad at moments as I looked around at the space, understanding its history in the passive details. The house has two front entrances that lead to separate rooms, one for distinguished guests and one for…the not so genuinely welcome. The quality of the wood for the doors and trim changes when you move from the family’s to servants’ quarters. It’s uncomfortable to think of design as a thing that segregates rather than integrates. I find myself wondering what it means to preserve and restore history so that we might always learn from it, and yet at the same time not allow ourselves ever to forget it.

A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro
A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro. So what does it mean to lead a beautiful life?

To my surprise, a couple I met in Madison now live in Lanesboro, to be close to family again and help with their family’s farm. They got burned out working at Epic Systems (a software company for healthcare in Madison) and moved back when the “grass on the other side” no longer seemed greener, thanks to windowless offices and high work pressures.

It could be the groups I end up hanging out with, but I almost feel like a stereotype now. I know more and more people who in spite of a bad job market are leaving their jobs. I know more and more people who quit their jobs when they get burnt out, some to travel, others to start their own businesses or to consult. I wonder what it means when at the same time, many people are unemployed, underemployed, in debt, and often extremely critical of those of us who have “taken a leap” from security and what, in many ways, reeks of privilege. I wonder what it means that the “winners” and “losers” in our society are so dissatisfied, and for the shared reason that our success has such a narrow definition. We live in a culture of veiled bribery with the way education is structured, and even those of us who seem to have gotten out become players in a very similar game. I listened to a consultant recently, who flies every week from Miami to Madison, talk about how happy he is to have the flexibility and freedom that consulting gives him…though he usually ends up in Wisconsin, and the work, at least to me, sounded like a drag. I listened to him and thought, “People have such different definitions of what freedom really is. And your ‘freedom’ doesn’t sound like the kind I’m looking for.”

I reflect on this “hunt” that I seem to be on, this unnamed hunger I can never be free of, this “a la carte” lifestyle and education that increasingly defines me or maybe has always defined me. I think about the artwork I’ll get to create outside soon and the students I’ll get to work with; that makes me happy. I think about the answers that don’t come quickly enough and the questions I can never ask enough of.

The students in my interview asked, “Why do you draw so many trees?” I’ve gotten asked that question a lot over the years, so I think by now I’ve got a decent answer.

“Because they’re always growing, even though we can’t perceive it, and they remind me to be patient about the changes I cannot see. Because they don’t need to move or be fast to make a difference. Because even though they can’t move themselves, they give me books and an education, which can take me anywhere. Because they give us air.”