Valley Reads Gets Big Boost from the National Endowment for the Arts

National Endowment for the Arts bolsters the Big Read St. Croix book event series
Heather Rutledge, executive director at ArtReach St. Croix with a copy of Love Medicine, this year’s Valley Reads selection.

The St. Croix Valley is a community rich in history, natural beauty and the arts. This year, its literacy programming received a boost through a $15,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which will fund a local iteration of the national reading initiative called The Big Read. ArtReach St. Croix is proudly leading the program.

ArtReach St. Croix is committed to celebrating and supporting the work of visual, literary and performing artists in the St. Croix Valley. “We call ourselves an art service organization,” says Heather Rutledge, now in her fifth year as the nonprofit’s executive director. “Artists and smaller organizations dedicate most of their time and energy to their product. We find that we can benefit them by lending a hand when it comes to marketing and advocacy.”

Considering the organization’s focus on cultivating public appreciation for art of all forms, ArtReach is involved with a local reading series called Valley Reads, an annual spring event that began in 2005. The NEA grant that funds Big Read St. Croix coincides with Valley Read’s 10th anniversary.

Both Valley Reads and Big Read St. Croix were established in the wake of a 2004 research study that demonstrated a sharp national decline in pleasure reading.

Rutledge describes Big Read St. Croix as “Valley Reads on steroids.” While adhering to the core values of the locally established event, the planners of Big Read were able to use the additional resources to pull together a wider variety of programs and partnerships. “We had a great network of people working on [this], like the Stillwater Library Foundation, Valley Bookseller and numerous local book clubs,” she says.

Rutledge points out that Big Read St. Croix is distinct from many Big Read programs across the nation, most of which are hosted by libraries. “[They] tend to start with the book and then find ways to incorporate the arts. We start with art,” she says. “The arts provide other points of entry for [those] who are not generally inclined to read. We have a long tradition of connecting readers to literature that way.”

This year’s event will focus on the novel Love Medicine, by Minnesota author Louise Erdrich. “We were attracted to [this text] because Erdrich is a Minnesota author and the themes are especially relevant to people in our area,” Rutledge says.

Following an April 11 kick-off event at Marine Village Hall in Marine on St. Croix, three visual art exhibits will be open to the public, all with a title that takes up three central themes of Erdrich’s novel: spirit, heart and home. “The cool thing about a show like this is seeing how each artist interprets the theme,” Rutledge says.

The exhibits are located at the ArtReach St. Croix galleries in Stillwater, the Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center in Prescott, Wis., and the St. Croix River Visitor Center in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

Throughout the month, local libraries will offer book discussions and tie-in programs. In preparation for these events, complimentary copies of Love Medicine are available at ArtReach St. Croix gallery and in neighborhood Little Free Libraries. Additionally, ArtReach will place hundreds of copies in public venues such as local coffee shops, pubs and laundromats; the book is also available at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater and Chapter 11 Books in Hudson for a 15 percent discount.