Museum on Rails Rolls Into Rural Communities: Artrain USA

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A woman steps up into a train.

Helen Milliken, then First Lady of Michigan, engineered Artrain’s creation in 1971, with support from the Arts Endowment. Photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

1971It's a museum on wheels, chugging through America bringing art to isolated pockets of the country. Since 1971, it's visited more than 725 communities in 44 states and the District of Columbia, bringing a wide range of exhibitions to more than 2.9 million people. Artrain USA doesn't own a permanent collection but borrows artworks from museums and other institutions, so that it can change shows every two or three years.

Founded by the Michigan Council for the Arts, its original, rather modest mission was to bring the arts to isolated areas of its own state for a two-year period. The Arts Council recruited Helen Milliken, the Lieutenant Governor's wife, to help raise the $850,000 necessary to make Artrain a reality.

"At the very start we knew we needed seed money to get it off the ground," Milliken says. So she paid a visit to Nancy Hanks, who was then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Hanks was immediately fascinated by the project and her advocacy helped get Artrain moving.

Birds-eye view of a train with the town in the background. A tent and a hot air ballon can be seen nearby.

Artrain paid a visit to Edenton, NC to celebrate the Chowan Arts Council’s 20th anniversary in April 1996. Photo by Kelly Culpepper

"It was tremendously important to have the backing of the NEA when we went to businesses and major industries asking for funding," Milliken explains. "It was the key, we couldn't have raised that kind of money without that initial boost." Milliken soon became Michigan's First Lady and used her position to arrange Artrain's first national tour to eight of the Rocky Mountain states. The Arts Endowment provided a grant to cover half the trip's costs with the host states picking up the other half.

Wherever it stops, Artrain acts as a community catalyst, encouraging the formation of local and regional arts councils, bolstering art education programs, and spurring downtown revitalization and railroad station renovations.

Artrain's current exhibition, Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture, a contemporary Native American art exhibition, opened in 2004 and will tour nationally through 2007. The exhibition is estimated to reach 250,000 visitors in 100 primarily rural and Native American host communities across America.

"It's had an immediate and pervasive impact everywhere it's gone, acting as a catalyst for various arts activities," says Milliken. "Who knows what the impact has been on individual lives? Who knows what the individuals who visited Artrain have gone on to do based on that experience?"