Artland

A public-radio collaboration reporting on creative efforts that build community in unexpected places throughout the Midwest. This project is supported by a grant from the  Missouri Arts Council.

C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

El Dean Holthus knows what people might think of a town like Smith Center, Kansas.

At nearly the exact geographic center of the contiguous United States, it's an hour from the nearest Interstate. It's home to about 1,600 people, but that population is declining like most of rural America's.

They probably think, he says, that "it's just a little hole in the ground."

Jack Williams / NET News

In the middle of a cornfield in south-central Nebraska, an oasis of art is growing.

Art Farm, situated off a long dirt road outside the small town of Marquette, started back in 1993 as an artist residency program. Since then, it’s become a one-of-a-kind experience many artists can’t resist.

Ryan Welch / KSMU

Springfield, in southwest Missouri, is the state’s third most populous city. Its business districts are filled with historic buildings and gathering spaces that serve as platforms for artistic expression. But it’s a predominantly residential neighborhood on the city’s north side that’s becoming a new destination for artists.

If you were to stand in the middle of Lafayette Park and turn a full circle, you’d find at least one constant: the base of every utility pole is painted.

Courtesy National Orphan Train Complex

There’s only one train line left in Concordia, Kansas (population just over 5,000), and it hauls grain. But more than a hundred years ago there were four train lines. Some of them were passenger trains, and in the 1880s, one carried a group of unaccompanied children from New York.

It stopped in nearby Wayne, Kansas, where strangers were waiting to choose the children.

Courtesy Friends of Arrow Rock

On a bitterly cold afternoon early this winter, Patrick Overton was standing outside the historic Federated Church of Arrow Rock, Missouri, greeting people for the town’s annual folk sing-along. As visitors made their way through the afternoon cold to the warm glow of the church, Overton welcomed old friends, introduced himself to new ones, and joked that it was safe for all to enter because he would not be singing.

Courtesy Museum Of Nebraska Art / Collection of the Artist

The Museum of Nebraska Art — or MONA — sits on the main drag of the small, central Nebraska town of Kearney. This winter, it has featured work by the state's Latina artists in the first show of its kind.

C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

Robert and Karen Duncan are well-known art collectors in Lincoln, Nebraska – but they haven’t forgotten their hometown in southwest Iowa.

The couple moved to Lincoln in the 1960s, when Robert came to run the family business, Duncan Aviation, a massive airplane service business. They also started collecting art. Forty years later, they had amassed a significant collection, and built a home designed to display it, on forty acres landscaped for a sculpture garden.

Ariana Brocious / NET News

Ord, Nebraska, with its population of 2,000, sits between corn fields and ranches on the North Loup River, in the middle of the state.

Downtown, its historic art deco theater boasts high ceilings, multicolor arches, and inlaid wooden decorations in the lobby, walls tiled in red and navy, and hexagonal lights. The building on Ord’s central square served as a movie theater for decades, but in 2011, it underwent extensive renovations to become a live performance space.

Kate Carlton Greer / KGOU

Just 20 miles south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border lies a structure that can’t be missed. The tower draws crowds from around the world and has given a little city a big name.

Bartlesville’s Price Tower is an anomaly. In an oil and gas town filled with short red-, orange- and brown-brick buildings, its 19 stories stand tall with green patina copper and cantilevered floors.

C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

Inside the gallery, it’s a scene familiar to anyone who attends art openings: People are enjoying the oil paintings and large-scale photographs bathed in natural light, snacking on cheese and crackers while lively conversation bounces off the brick walls and polished wood floors.

Outside, though, is the wide-open silence of the Kansas Flint Hills.

This particular art gallery is surrounded by ranch lands in rural Wabaunsee County, where there are many more cattle than people. The gallery's in a place called Volland, which is basically the intersection of a two-lane highway and a dirt road. 

Ingrid Roettgen / Courtesy of Truman Media Network

The northeastern Missouri town of Kirksville has a population of just over 17,000 people. It’s also home to Truman State University, a liberal arts school with about 6,000 students – a few of whom have worked hard to create their own sense of adventure in a town where there isn’t much to do.

“It’s a town where you have to roll up the sidewalks at night, you know? It’s that small,” says Jacob Hurst, a grad student at Truman State. “All we have is, like, a Wal-Mart. That’s what some kids do for a good time on a Saturday night: Just go walk around Wal-Mart.”

Kat Shiffler / Center for Rural Affairs

On a Monday night, Main Street in Lyons, Nebraska, is closed — for a movie, according to signs on the barricades. A crowd has gathered on the brick pavement. Suddenly, what appears to be an empty storefront begins to move. People watch with anticipation as the facade leans forward, lowering toward the street.

After the façade comes down, a stand of bleacher seats slides forward from the empty building, creating outdoor seating for 80 people. Lyons’ Storefront Theater has become a reality. The crowd claps and cheers.

Jacqueline Froelich / KUAF

In its early days, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was a popular Victorian-era spa resort, with visitors arriving by train to take the water cure in the 1890s.

Decades later, in the 1940s, a group of painters, traveling to this small Ozarks village by automobile during the summers, established a permanent art colony. Today, more than 10 percent of the town’s 2,000 residents work as artists, either in their own studios or in more than 30 galleries amid Eureka Springs’ steep curving boulevards and lush spring-fed gardens.