Using Art in Vacant Storefronts to Rebuild A Small Town’s Future

by Joanne Steele on March 8, 2011

Downtown Dunsmuir California

Dunsmuir, California. Once a railroad town, soon to become an art town.

Nothing portrays decline and defeat like a block full of empty storefronts. That is the situation in small town after small town throughout the United States right now.

With a rise in interest in “local,” – local food, authentic experiences, a slower pace of life and all that longing for something REAL, these empty small towns should be bustling with visitors, but they’re not.

And much of it has to do with perception. If a small town LOOKS empty, and FEELS in decline, what entrepreneur is going to be able to visualize him or herself creating a successful business there?

What visitor is going to stop long enough for even a bite to eat or an overnight in a charming local mom & pop motel?

Changing perception is the first step in turning around a small town.

Taking an idea from larger communities, small towns are beginning to turn to their arts community for help.

Filling those vacant storefronts with art has been a successful economic revitalization project for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Eugene, Oregon is also filling vacant storefronts with art.

And now, Dunsmuir, California, population barely 2000, is readying five storefronts for the work of local artists.

Why Economic Revitalization through art?

“Since the beginning of time, artists have sought out inexpensive, interesting places to make art,” muses Siskiyou Arts Council Executive Director, Lauri Sturdivant. “They move into small towns, crumbling lofts in cities, off-the-beaten path districts in order to live cheaply and make art. Then, restaurants follow and little stores and curious shoppers and all of a sudden, the area becomes ‘trendy.’ Prices go up and artists move on, creating opportunity in a new backwater location.”

In Dunsmuir, the Chamber of Commerce Revitalization Committee, local building owners and regional artists are working together to revitalize a charming but empty downtown by filling the windows with art.

“We’re excited to have something for our restaurant patrons to do before and after coming here for dinner,” notes restaurant owner, Nancy LaMott. “ “Dunsmuir has a safe, walkable downtown with charming historic buildings. What could be better than a nice dinner at one of our town’s restaurants followed by a stroll past beautiful art displays in storefront windows.”

I’ll keep you posted on Dunsmuir’s success. Action follows perception, and Dunsmuir is confident that beautiful window displays will help attract new business to town.

Stay tuned….

1 jafagirls August 1, 2011 at 8:36 am

Check out Yellow Springs, Ohio 🙂
our population is 3,500 and there has been a huge effort to promote the arts in the last few years. A local artist put together an amazing public art map.

I agree though the key is community support (chamber of commerce has been magnificent), and in Yellow Springs there is an atmosphere of acceptance that allowed us (jafagirls) to put up yarnbombing on a whole street for several years, as well as property owners allowing local artists to paint murals on back alley walls.

2 Joanne Steele August 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

And it’s amazingly good for economic development! Since we welcomed artwork into our vacant storefront windows, we’ve attracted 5 NEW BUSINESSES to Dunsmuir! Now, we’re looking at how to continue to support our artists after they helped us fill all the vacant stores.

3 Kathryn Reasoner March 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm

The town of Napa just celebrated 20 storefront window projects by artists on 1st Street, a main artery through the traditional center of town that was also mostly vacant. They will be up for several months. It has really created a buzz and it’s wonderful to walk what used to be a dark corridor to find it lively, lit and full of viewers in the evening. The project was coordinated by Arts Council Napa Valley with funding from downtown merchants.

4 Joanne Steele March 22, 2011 at 7:22 am

Thanks Kathryn, Did the project help you get some of those storefronts filled?

5 Marc Gunther March 17, 2011 at 8:36 am

Thanks Joanne for this excellent article and for mentioning the Eugene Storefront Art Project. Yes Carla it took months for us to get the attention of property owners but we now have dozens of installations in Lane County. It will happen if you persist.Great idea about having the Chamber help with liability.
Go here for some tips:

6 Joanne Steele March 22, 2011 at 7:23 am

Thanks Marc, and thanks for the suggestion to join the International Storefront Art Facebook page. It is so helpful for small towns to join forces and learn from each other.

7 Carla Howell March 14, 2011 at 11:53 am


This is such a great idea if you can make it work. We tried this in our community and met with huge resistance from the property owners, who didn’t want the liability, even when we told them there would be no one coming into their properties, except the artists and then only to place and remove the work. One property owner allowed us to do it for ONE weekend during one of our festivals!
I won’t give up trying, however!


8 Joanne Steele March 15, 2011 at 7:15 am

Hi Carla,
We’ve been working on the project for over a year, so I know what you mean. What we’ve done is partner with the Chamber of Commerce that provides liability insurance for anyone going into the buildings to clean and set up or take down artwork. Then we had a local lawyer create a comprehensive waiver of liability that each artist signs, releasing the property owner from any liability for the artwork. so far, so good – we just had 4 more property owners sign on.

9 Bill Metcalfe March 11, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hi Joanne, I think this is excellent advice and there is another advantage to this approach: the artists get to actually take part in a downtown revitalization strategy. Politicians and business people don’t normally let artists in on these things like this, or even think to talk to them about it. Beyond putting art in the windows, the artists might have other good ideas about how to enliven the downtown.

10 Joanne Steele March 11, 2011 at 11:49 am

Exactly, Bill. Our artists have come up with another great project – decorating our lamp posts with fish art. We are a fishing destination with the Upper Sacramento River running right through town, and fish art is a natural fit. All summer, visitors will have another great reason to stroll through our downtown, all because of the creative thinking and energy of our artist community.

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