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Our History

One of six nonprofit United States Regional Arts Organizations, Arts Midwest’s history spans more than 35 years. Since our founding, we have awarded more than 6,000 grants totaling nearly $60 million. Each year, we serve more than 700,000 individuals across more than 300 communities in the Midwest and beyond.

Two people perform on stage, with their arms extended out from their hips and smiling at each other. In the background, two people wearing sunglasses play guitar on a stage.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

It began with a merger

In 1985, in the town of New Harmony, Indiana, two U.S. Regional Arts Organizations—the Great Lakes Arts Alliance and the Affiliated State Arts Agencies of the Upper Midwest—merged their teams, programs, and ideas to form Arts Midwest. We’ve been committed to supporting Midwestern creativity ever since.

Learn More About the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations

Students use hammers and chisels to carve dovetails keys into the base of the boat as Douglas Brooks' traditional Japanese wooden boatbuilding apprentices.
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky

“In that very first meeting, we developed a vision of a regional organization that would come to represent the cultural vitality and diversity of the Midwest. We believed if we pooled our resources—human and financial—we could create an organization whose future would be limited only by the creativity and determination of its leadership and the region it would serve.”

Judy Rapanos, Arts Midwest Founding Board Chair

Past Programs & Services

Arts Midwest’s 35+ year history spans geographic and cultural borders, artistic disciplines, and purpose. Learn more about some of the ways in which we have supported creativity across the Midwest.

If you’d like more information on our history, please contact our team.

Since our founding, Arts Midwest has been dedicated to advancing the performing arts industry across the Midwest.

This commitment has been at the core of our touring grants, which have evolved to support a variety of performing arts engagements across the region and are now available to Midwestern arts organizations via the GIG Fund.

Our work has also honored, supported, and documented the legacy and impact of jazz artists across the Midwest and the country. What began as a regional program and newsletter dedicated to connecting with our region’s cultural history, eventually inspired the formation of national jazz service organizations and the NEA Jazz Masters Live and Tours. Today, we partner with South Arts on JazzRoad, a program that continues to celebrate and support this American art form.

For nearly 30 years, we produced the Arts Midwest Conference, a booking and educational conference for the Midwest performing arts industry. This annual event served more than 1,200 participants each year and played an important role in supporting the national performing arts touring community. In 2022 and beyond, we are investing in new efforts to convene the performing arts industry, including conferences produced by the Ohio Arts Presenters Network and Heartland Arts Expo.

In 2003, Arts Midwest began to test how we might foster an appreciation for global uniqueness and differences across our region. Over the following 20 years, we have toured artists from Brazil, Canada, China, Inner Mongolia, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Somalia, and more, to nearly 300 Midwestern communities–supporting bridge building, fostering cultural exchange, and ensuring communities of all sizes have access to world music.

In 2009, this work expanded to the national stage, where we toured 15 performing arts ensembles from Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, and Malaysia as well the U.S. Muslim community to 25 American communities to counteract anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S.

Some of our performing arts programs also brought Midwestern artists to communities across the globe for performances and educational residencies, including Lakota Hoop dancer and flute player Kevin Locke and his ensemble and singer, poet, and memoirist Dessa.

Our history of visual arts touring has brought national and international attention to Midwestern artists and artworks. Spanning genres and mediums, we have partnered with incredible curators and arts institutions to ensure that audiences across the globe can be inspired by the creativity of the Midwest.

  • Illusions of Eden: Visions of the American Heartland showcased Midwestern creativity in Central Europe.
  • Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson explored the artist’s memory of her Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood, while celebrating her Black heritage and reconstructing the complex histories of cultural communities.
  • The Somali Documentary Project served as a chronicle of the Somali peoples’ exodus from their homeland in Africa, through the refugee camps of Dadaab, Kenya, to the United States, and toured nationally and internationally for two years.
  • Identity and the American Landscape toured the photographs of Minnesota photographer, Wing Young Huie, to 14 cities across China. Asking questions about immigration, identity, and home, the exhibition invited viewers to explore the possibilities, complexities, and positive everyday realities of American diversity.
  • Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison, was a comprehensive retrospective that toured the work of this important 20th-century Ojibwe artist to five communities across the United States.

In 2006, Arts Midwest partnered with The National Endowment for the Arts to create our first literary arts program, NEA Big Read. Developed to bring the transformative power of literature into the lives of people across the United States, NEA Big Read has awarded more than 1,700 grants across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and reached more than 5.7 million people.

Arts Midwest has a long legacy of developing leaders and building the capacity of our region’s arts sector.

Data-driven research and policy papers such as Voicing Support for the Arts, Freedom of Expression in the Arts, and Creating Connection have explored the importance of public sector support for the arts, artistic freedom and expression, and the role and value of creativity in everyday life.

We also have convened arts leaders for learning and collaboration. Efforts such as the Minority Arts Administration Fellowships, START, Arts Learning Xchange, ArtsLab, and the Community Creativity Cohort 2 have brought arts leaders together to learn from one another, share ideas, and build networks.

These initiatives have since inspired us to develop the Ideas Hub, a free platform for resources, ideas, and learning.

As a partner to our nine State Arts Agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Midwest has also supported relief and resilience efforts during difficult and uncertain times.

This work first began with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which sought to jumpstart the American economy by creating and saving millions of jobs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we again partnered with state, federal, and private partners to disburse funding via CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund.

Partners in the Arts

Arts Midwest works closely with the National Endowment for the Arts and the nine state arts agencies in our region to develop and deliver programs and services to communities of all sizes. Since our founding in 1985, we have partnered with the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, North Dakota Council on the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, South Dakota Arts Council, and Wisconsin Arts Board to connect people and communities across our region to creative experiences.

Our Partners

A bright future

Learn more about how we’re supporting, informing, and celebrating Midwestern creativity now and in the future.

Explore Our Brand + Strategy

Children perform on harp instruments in a music room as part of Chamber Music Festival of the Black Hills.
Photo Credit: Chamber Music Festival of the Black Hills