Train, Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Elaine Lipson.

Train, Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Elaine Lipson.

Between my Twitter feed, Facebook, LinkedIn, and favorite blogs, I’ve seen dozens of posts about the Amtrak Writer’s Residency in the last week or so—each with a comment of amazement at such a great idea, a yearning to participate, or just sheer enthusiasm and excitement. I haven’t seen one negative comment. With the announcement of a simple, relatively low-cost program, Amtrak went from 20th-century low-tech has-been to viral success. By recognizing our longing for quiet spaces, the romance of the road, and our collective need to do some meaningful, creative work, by requiring only “a passion for writing and an aspiration to travel” (along with some legal terms and a background check), Amtrak has turned its brand around almost instantaneously. “How cool,” seems to be the go-to response to this project—and Amtrak hasn’t been cool for a very long time.

I can’t predict what kind of return Amtrak will get on its investment, but at the very least, the company has endeared itself to writers and artists, reminded people that train travel is still an option (with possibly very interesting traveling companions), and racked up a lot of website hits. I’d venture that there will be long-term follow-up interest too, as people wonder what the trips inspired and what it was like. And I’m quite sure some intrepid publisher is already contracting for a book of text and photographs about the writer’s railroad. For millions of people who have never traveled by train, it’s surely awakened some curiosity, and from the perspective of artists, it’s a wonderful opportunity for adventure.

The arts and fine crafts are booming in America—but arts funding and art education are not. Since the Great Recession began in 2008, people have been suggesting a new kind of Works Progress Administration program to put artists to work, but that hasn’t materialized. In the absence of secure government funding, corporations and organizations can step in and find appropriate ways to bring the arts into their dynamic and foster connections. Companies have always sponsored museum exhibitions, classical music and dance, and other traditional arts projects, of course, but the Amtrak initiative suggests that innovative, dynamic, and small-scale connections between companies and artists can have positive results that go beyond a company logo on an e-ticket for an event.

In the organic foods and sustainable farming world, a community I’ve worked in for years, I’ve been tracking connections between art and agriculture for years. Now I’m part of an impressive group that’s exploring a nonprofit to foster these connections and support art that supports sustainable agriculture. What’s been striking and exciting is how many grassroots arts projects already exist with a sustainable agriculture theme. I now hope to see organic foods companies begin to create meaningful arts programs (and if I can help, please contact me). The moment is ripe to integrate the arts with every kind of community or organization.

In my next post, I’ll look at some specific ways that companies can begin to create and support arts projects and artists that are appropriate to their size, mission, and culture.