Tucked away in northwest Nebraska, Rushville may not seem like a typical location for an institute of art, but the town provides the perfect setting for Sandhills Institute founder Mel Ziegler’s rural-community-driven project.
The institute seeks to bond art with community and connect artists from around the world with the farmers and ranchers of the area. As its missions statement reads, it does so to strengthen the economic, environmental and cultural fabric of the community.
“Recently the National Endowment for the Arts sponsored research on artists in rural America and cultural institutions – how cultural institutions affect small towns – and their research was amazing,” Ziegler says.
He says it’s always been know that arts can help the economics of an urban center but researchers wondered if the same were true of rural areas. Ziegler says they not only found the same economic benefits in the rural centers, but also that the arts organizations in rural America tended to be very civically engaged.
That engagement with the community is something Ziegler has long valued in his art.
Each year the institute hosts a summer residency program that brings artists of many different backgrounds to the area. During their residencies the artists learn about the area and connect with the local population with a goal of developing art projects that are community-driven and socially integrated.
In pursuit of Ziegler’s vision of art woven into the community, resident artists are required to return to the Sandhills Institute three times to build familiarity with the culture, environment and people of the area before proposing their projects.
At this time, the institute is headquartered at Ziegler’s ranch in the Sandhills near Rushville.
“When artists come we spend a lot of time out at the ranch and I teach them, and I have rangeland experts come out and teach them things and show them things, so they’re learning about ranching,” Ziegler says.
He believes it’s important that there’s a dialogue between the artists and the ranchers and has hosted dinners where the artists met and engaged with the patriarchs of the town.
In a nation in which the divide between urban and rural values seems only to be growing wider, the institute’s residency program also facilitates the interaction of the two which Ziegler sees as another goal of his endeavor.
“I really believe that’s what I’m trying to do,” Ziegler says. “I get people out here that have never been west of the Mississippi; that have never been to a rural part of America.”
In its fifth year of existence the institute has already had artists working on projects after meeting the three-year visitation requirement.
The projects include a redesign of the Rushville welcome sign by artist and landscape architect fellow Kayla Meyers, an agroforest project from Brazilian artist Jorge Menna Barreto, and a unique artwork called “Rolling Field” being created by New Mexican artist Russell Bauer in collaboration with local rancher Bob Beguin.
Past projects include artist T.J. Edwards’s remediation of a long-term blowout on the ranch of Evelyn Crane that is perhaps best described as a living bandage which uses geotextiles placed over the blowout with fourteen species of grasses planted.
Also completed was a project called “Urtica Dioica” by Barreto in which he dried, blended and bottled powdered stinging nettle to provide a site-specific food with the goal of connecting those consuming it to the landscape.
If some of the artists projects leave readers wondering, “is that art?,” Ziegler doesn’t mind.
“I am trying, even in my own practice, to blur the boundaries between what can be thought of as art,” Ziegler says. “A lot of times what I’ve done in my own work is use the conventional forms of a particular place to make my art.”
Ziegler says that during a visit by the Nebraska Arts Council a neighbor commented, “Mel has taught us that art can be so much more than what we originally thought.”
“I was thinking,” Ziegler says of the comment, “that’s a good thing. I’m really glad to hear that from someone because I’m not using traditional types of art. It’s a residency that’s not about hanging out in a studio and painting and drawing all day. It really is meant to get the artists involved in the community and with community groups.”
One way the institute hopes to meet its goals is with The Grocery Store.
The Grocery Store will be an art and community center that will repurpose and add to what once was a main street grocery, but now sits empty in downtown Rushville.
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Ziegler says the Grocery will become another way for the institute to fulfill its mission and provide a catalyst for socially-integrated projects. It will also feature an addition that provides temporary housing for visiting artists.
The institute collaborated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Architecture for the design of the community center. The product of that cooperation resulted in a design which earned recognition and a citation from Architect Magazine.
In all of its pursuits, Ziegler hopes the institute can help inspire while blurring the lines of who is inspiring who between the artists and the community.
“I think the ranchers can be extremely inspiring in what they do,” Ziegler says. “There’s a sense of trying to maintain and protect some of the cultural heritage with what we do.”
The Grocery will help to provide another point of engagement not just with the artistic community in the surrounding area, but with the general population.
“They don’t have to be artists,” Ziegler says of those who interact and will interact with the Sandhills Institute, “but what it does is help them understand their culture and their environment. To be able to have some kind of visual dialog, or some kind of dialog intellectually about the things that are around them.
“I have a lot of respect for this place and what people do and I’m also kind of in awe of it all.”
That Ziegler and his Sandhills Institute ended up Rushville is chance, but Ziegler considers himself lucky to have found a home for his dream art endeavor in a place he’s come to love.
“It had been a dream of mine to do what I’m doing,” Ziegler, who splits time between Rushville and Nashville says. “I was interested in doing something in a small rural town. I myself grew up in a small rural town in Pennsylvania, I grew up as a dairy farmer.”
Ziegler, an accomplished artist who studied at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, served for 10 years as a professor of sculpture at the University of Texas, Austin and spent 10 years stewarding the development of the art major at Vanderbilt University where he serves as chair of the department.
He discovered Rushville in a round-about way, being first introduced to the Sandhills on the return leg of a trip to the geographic center of the United States, approximately 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, which he was visiting as part of one of his art projects.
“I fell in love with the sandhills,” Ziegler says. “I was just so amazed with how impressive and how beautiful it was.
“My wife said that she could see it my eyes that I was going to have to own some land there. And she was right. I became sort of obsessed with it.”
While on sabbatical, Ziegler was working on a rural photography project and began spending more time in rural states including Nebraska. He knew he wanted a portion of the project to take place in the sandhills and ended up spending a lot of time there.
“The way I work I tend to use diners and bars as my studio because I like to talk to people and find out information,” Ziegler says. “So I started hanging out, mostly in Valentine, but then I started expanding further west.”
Though Ziegler fell in love with the area he didn’t initially think his dream of starting the institute had to be located there, but it happened that a ranch came up for sale and Ziegler looked into it.
“I couldn’t make up my mind,” Ziegler says. “I must have taken people there eight, nine, maybe 10 times. It was the Davis ranch and Owen Davis was gracious enough to take me on tours every time I went out there. I didn’t know if I could afford it and it was a big move, but it turned out that eventually I made them an offer and was able to get the ranch. That’s how I got situated in Rushville.”
Ziegler says the institute wasn’t a sure thing at first.
“I will say that it was a bit of a speculative thing for me,” Ziegler says, “Can we do this; is it possible? How will it affect the community, will it help the community.
“I think my main goal was to bring the art world to rural America. I wanted to do this thing that was not so much about the urban art world, but more about the rural art world.”
“I think I got lucky,” Ziegler says, “I think (Rushville) is a really wonderful place. I think the people are amazing and they’ve been very receptive to me. And I appreciate that because I’m an outsider.”