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Arts and Trails: Images in the Landscape

Presented at the 15th National Trails Symposium sponsored by American Trails in Redding, California, September 21-24, 2000. See more on Arts and Trails...

By Kimber Craine

I represent the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, which is the national organization of the 56 state and jurisdictional arts agencies. which annually fund 30,000 artists and arts organizations each year.

I'm going to address several things:

  • New ideas about trails
  • Recognition through the National Recreation Trails program
  • Describe the role of the arts in trails
  • Provide an overview of how state arts agencies and regional arts organizations can assist you in connecting to the arts and what the benefits are for you

Let me begin with some facts I want you to keep in mind while I talk:

  • Our population is aging and in the next decade the junior matures, ages 55-65, will be the largest segment of the population.
  • By 2010 Hispanics will be the largest minority. Part of a trend toward a more culturally diverse population.
  • Tourism ranks outdoor activities as second behind shopping in its list of top visitor activities. Among junior matures it falls to 5th behind shopping, a visit to a historic site or museum, cultural events, and gambling.
  • The National Governors' Association has put quality of life issues, which includes trails and culture, at the top of their agenda.

To address these issues we will need to think differently and embrace partners and issues we never considered before.

On the face of it arts and trails seem to have nothing in common. Trails are not a traditional arts venue nor do our streets or landscapes often reflect much of an artistic vision. However, there is a natural synergy between the two.

National Recreation Trails

National Recreation Trails designation provides recognition for national, state and community trails, but it is more importantly a vision statement for all trails. What makes these trails different from anything that has come before are these three things:

  • Meaning and remembrance are fundamental
  • The unique character of individual neighborhoods, rural landscapes and wild places are not often expressed by trails.
  • For me it is our unique responsibility to express the meanings, memories and visions of these places. Artists and arts program administrator can help you discover and express those meanings.

Trails to challenge the imagination

Art linked to the design and building of trails makes them more interesting, pleasing, and intriguing.

Artists can challenge bureaucrats, engineers, architects, city planners and government officials to think outside the box.

For instance, consider the thousands of seats, drinking fountains, sculptures, earthworks, bridges and other pieces of street furniture and infrastructure that could benefit from an artistic perspective.

Or consider ways that artists can educate the public about the environment or trail safety and usage, recycle billboards into interpretive or visual art pieces, mitigate industrial landscapes or provide expertise in developing interpretative programs for historic buildings and trails.

National Recreation Trails will redraw the landscape

National Recreation Trails is an organizing principle for what I call the invisible landscape of the imagination. Collectively and individually, it illuminates and coalesces into a single identity a trail's cultural, historical and natural resources of a trail, which are the ingredients of this landscape. Each trail has its own unique invisible landscape that it shares with the communities it touches.

Recognition of our trails and greenways is our opportunity to rediscover the landscape and ask the community, How do you use this place? and what does it mean to you?

One of your challenges is how to knit together diverse constituencies and mesh your values with theirs into a network of support. Support that is critical to sustaining a trail now and into the future.

The arts can help you meet this challenge by bringing new constituencies to the table and providing them with the tools to express their vision and connections to this trail.

How Trails Can Use Arts Resources

The first step is planning. Each of your trails can begin by identifying the natural, cultural and historic aspects of your trails&emdash;arts organizations, local artists, museums, libraries, schools, cultural centers, etc. Your partners in this planning and development process are your state, local and regional arts agencies.

By engaging in this collaboration, trails have an opportunity to meet and engage the community in a new way, the result of which will create a resource that you can use to tell your trail's story. This in turn will assist you in defining that invisible landscape and make visible the connections to your community.

Community is at the heart of the mission of state arts agencies and their common purpose is to provide access to the arts. What do we mean by the arts? Let me answer a question with another question.

Remember when I asked earlier, What does this trail mean to you?

State arts agencies ask the same question of communities about the arts. What are your cultural expressions and who are your artists?

The answers to these two questions help define what we mean by the arts, which embrace a diversity of cultural expressions, ranging from saddlemaking and fiddle playing to ballet and opera. State arts agencies recognize that our communities and the way that people experience the arts are changing. These agencies know that the boundaries and walls that once defined our art spaces must be expanded to embrace new partners and new venues.

Trails are an important, but underutilized resource for most communities. Here are of some the programs and services you can use to connect the arts to your trail.


Most state arts agencies have some kind of residency program for artists. During a residency an artist will often teach, perform or demonstrate their craft. Residencies can be an effective vehicle for providing an interpretive component to a trail.

For example, Michigan's Great Outdoors Culture Tour utilizes the touring roster of the arts council and the humanities agency to provide programming during the summer in Michigan's state parks, national forests and national parks.

Folk Arts

Forty-seven state arts agency have resident folklorists. They can assist you in documenting the cultures and artists, as well as assist you in engaging the communities connected by your trail in developing their cultural resources.

The Arts & Crafts Trails of North Carolina have used the Blue Ridge Parkway as a spine for developing an extensive series of driving tours, allowing visitors an opportunity to visit artists' studios, listen to local musical traditions and experience a broad range of local culture and history. This effort was built on the extensive research and development done by the North Carolina Arts Council.

Public Art

Some 24 states and 200 local jurisdictions have public or percent for art programs. Draw on the expertise of these agencies for ideas, technical assistance, artist selection and other resources.

Arts Education

SAA arts education programs engage students in a number of projects. For example, arts education projects can teach the community about the history, environment and peoples that once lived near your trails. In Kansas, for instance, two performance and installation artists are working with school-children and elders to create storefront installations and public performances illustrating local stories and significant sites.

Community Development

Applying the arts to the needs of the community, from serving as a catalyst for economic development to support for the advancement of local cultural resources, are a significant part of the efforts of state arts agencies. State arts agency community development programs offer trails a process and a proven framework for engaging local citizens in developing their cultural and historic resources.

Just as every trail is different, so too are state arts agencies. Not all of these programs may apply to your particular needs or exist in your state, but they are probably one of the most important cultural development partners and resources in your state. Aside from their programs, these agencies can also help you facilitate new collaborations with state and federal agencies.

I began my remarks by saying that arts and trails seem to have nothing in common. However, National Recreation Trails proves the opposite to be true.

March 16, 2007the arts
  • Trails connect communities; so too the arts
  • Trails have a story to tell and the arts can help you tell it.

    Learn about your state arts agency programs. Use art projects on your trails to leverage new partnerships and build new constituencies, and as an opportunity to think differently about trails and their role in the community. Join with your state arts agencies in honoring the past and imagining the future through the arts.

    See more on Arts and Trails on the American Trails website

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