Cultural Hot-Spots in America’s Small Towns

The old 1920s song famously asked:  “How can you keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?”  This question has always challenged rural leaders who know that the charms of small town life also mean doing without the cultural amenities of the big city.  Fortunately, this dilemma seems to be weakening thanks to the power of the Internet and social media, and the emergence of many small towns as cultural hot spots in their own right.

Smithsonian magazine recently published an interesting list of what they are calling “The Best Small Towns in America,” but what is really a listing of small towns with the greatest density and variety of cultural amenities.  I’ve pasted the full list below.

  • Great Barrington, MA
  • Taos, NM
  • Red Bank, NJ
  • Mill Valley, CA
  • Gig Harbor, WA
  • Durango, CO
  • Butler, PA
  • Marfa, TX
  • Naples, FL
  • Staunton, VA
  • Brattleboro, VT
  • Princeton, NJ
  • Brunswick, ME
  • Siloam Springs, AR
  • Menomonie, WI
  • Key West, FL
  • Laguna Beach, CA
  • Ashland, OR
  • Beckley City, WV
  • Oxford, MS

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting most of these communities, and they are all wonderful places.  What do they all share in common?  They tend to be home to college or university campus (e.g. Old Miss in Oxford; Bowdoin in Brunswick), they host a major art venue or event (Marfa’s Chinati Foundation or Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and have relative proximity to larger metro areas.  But it’s not all top-down and focused on anchor arts institutions.  Most of these communities are also home to a thriving grass roots arts scene, with strong support organizations and a connected community of artists.   Some of these towns are thriving, but many still have struggling local economies.  Yet, they all recognize that the arts offer one means to attract outside investments and visitors, while also creating a better quality of life for local residents.

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