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Rural revitalization through theater? You bet.

April 17, 2019

Ashley Hanson on stage in rural Minnesota. ~Photo by Dan Koeck.

A year ago at tax time, Ashley Hanson (BA ‘06) sat at her kitchen table surrounded by receipts. The self-employed artist was calculating her income from the three companies she’d founded to bring local theater to rural communities. The financial picture wasn’t encouraging.

Hanson, then 34, thought she’d have to quit and forge a new course. Then came a phone call from the director of the Obama Foundation Fellowship, a two-year leadership program for up-and-coming civic leaders. Hanson’s nonprofit, the Department of Public Transformation, was using the arts to spur creative thinking and economic development in rural communities, focusing on Granite Falls, MN, where she was the artist in residence.

When Hanson was informed that she’d been chosen to be part of the fellowship’s inaugural class of 20 people—the only artist representing rural America, chosen from over 20,000 applicants in 191 countries—she dropped to her knees.

“Because I was in that place of despair, it felt like a sign,” says Hanson, who grew up in Aitkin, MN. “It was an amazing, life changing moment that people care about rural communities.”

Hanson believes the arts can help revive rural America, which has seen decades of population decline and corporate disinvestment.

“Part of our work is about exercising that creativity and thinking about what else is possible.” Art and theater, she says, can “make magical things happen through moments of daily wonder.”

Her plays in Granite Falls and other communities have led to measurable change. After witnessing one of Hanson’s productions, Granite Falls resident Verona Dalin donated a vacant building her family had owned for over 50 years. Now, Hanson and the community are imagining how it will provide the kinds of events and opportunities that spark the city’s creative impulse.

“It’s not just about art. It’s about life here and enhancing our experiences as residents and citizens,” says Granite Falls mayor Dave Smiglewski.

Hanson agrees. “There is a buzz about Granite Falls. It’s because artists and creative [people] are coming together,” she says.

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The original version of this story appeared in Minnesota Alumni, the magazine of the U of M Alumni Association.