Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in Amery was the setting for this year's Rural Arts Forum. More than 30 attendees represented communities from Rhinelander to Hudson and Stacy, Minn. The Forum was hosted by LaMoine and Mary Ellen McLaughlin, who, as the Center's directors, are celebrating 30 years of success in offering the community a wide variety of arts from a gallery to theater, classes, and chamber music.

Guest speakers were George Tzougros, executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Arts Board, who recently received the prestigious Michael Newton Award at the Americans for the Arts National Convention; Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin, the state's leading arts advocacy agency; and Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North, a non-profit agency that partners with the Wisconsin Regional Economic Development Corporation. Also attending was Julie Fox, Department of Tourism regional specialist from Siren.

To open the session, individual attendees shared their local arts activities and the challenges they faced going forward. For example, Arts in Hand Gallery, Spooner, will hold a "Clay Day" on Saturday, August 17, from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., celebrating pottery and the artists who create it. A number of individuals spoke of funding and recruiting/retaining volunteers as their primary challenges.

"I'm here to get to know you," said Fox, explaining there are grants available from the Department to market and promote large events. She touted the Wisconsin Governor's Conference on Tourism which is held annually in March, as an opportunity to network with agency staff and cabinet members, attend educational breakout sessions, and gather resources. "Help us help you; contact me with any questions you have," she said

Katz presented statistics from a U.S. Department of Commerce and National Endowment for the Arts study: "Wisconsin's creative industries have a $9.7 billion annual impact on the state's economy," she said, continuing, "That creative workforce is larger than the state's beer, biotech and paper making sectors combined." and adding, "This research proves that creativity is a resource needed by every Wisconsin business and community in the 21st century. It is clear that Wisconsin's creative sector is a positive forces for change."

The Wisconsin Arts Board was originally signed into law as a stand-alone agency by Governor Patrick Lucy in 1973, said Tzougros, opening his talk. In 2011, WAB was merged into the Department of Tourism. He went on to highlight some of the WAB's current activities, including Creative Communities grant awards, the Wisconsin Science Festival in October, and presence in the Tourism booth at the Wisconsin State Fair in August.

Beyer, once a performing ballet dancer who now teaches in addition to her work with economic development, couched her conversation in terms of her art because she was speaking to a room full of people who are either artists or involved with arts management at the local level. She offered several profound observations.

"Speak the language of those in the room. When I am with economic development professionals, I rarely talk in artistic terms," she said. "I talk to their experience and their shared language. It’s important that we use that [shared language] as the tool for communication between sectors to show we understand and can work with them."

She continued, "There is no 'box.' People say that we should learn to 'think outside the box,' but the reality is that there is no box. We create the boxes we live and work within. We have to be brave and recognize that we can create a different reality if we would like to."

A challenge many rural communities face is that young people often move away and stay away, depleting the local talent, skill and entrepreneurial pool. "The truth is, some are ready to come back to start families or businesses, but I've heard that people -- like parents-- stress they should stay away.

"It’s time to change this conversation to, 'Go have your experience elsewhere, but please come back'," Beyer said. "We need to ask what services they need to make this transition easier, such as childcare vouchers, business start-up help, mortgage assistance programs, etc. We need to highlight their achievements and call them our own. It’s not hard- it just takes a radical shift in showing love."

National figures as compiled by the NEA's study on the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account tracks the annual economic impact from 35 industries, both commercial and non-profit.