Rural Cultural Wealth National Research Lab


This Lab, created through a founding partnership between NEA and RUPRI, appreciates the ongoing support of USDA, the University of Iowa, and our many other collaborators.

Download the Lab Conceptual Design (pdf)

The Rural Cultural Wealth Lab unites the knowledge and experiences of a diverse array of scholars and practitioners to address some of the most critical issues and opportunities facing rural people and places. It fulfills this need by building innovative metrics that will strengthen policymakers’ understanding of the various relationships and assets that define and reveal rural community wealth.

To achieve these outcomes, the Lab will interrogate and integrate three complementary fields of study: 1) rural arts and culture, 2) entrepreneurship and innovation, and 3) comprehensive rural wealth.

Comprehensive Rural Wealth

The Rural Wealth Framework, pioneered by RUPRI and other scholars, has arguably emerged as the most powerful, comprehensive, and dynamic approach to fully understand the assets and opportunities rural communities and regions hold, but also the challenges they must confront in achieving development and sustainability. Indeed, this approach offers a robust conceptual frame for the work of the Rural Cultural Wealth Lab.

The Rural Wealth Framework has found traction, in no small part, because of the limitations of Gross Domestic Product as a comprehensive measure of economic well-being. By contrast, the Rural Wealth Framework is based on the following eleven principles:

  1. The flow of benefits from wealth can either be consumed or invested. Only the latter increases future stocks of wealth.
  2. The Rural Wealth Framework (RWF) recognizes both economic (e.g., financial capital) and non-economic assets (e.g., political capital).
  3. The RWF recognizes assets for which traditional markets exist (e.g., physical capital) and assets for which that is not the case (e.g., social capital).
  4. The RWF recognizes that the eight capitals can be thought of individually, but they are often inter-related, sometimes complementing and sometimes substituting one another. Furthermore, the greatest impacts typically occur when the potential synergy across these capitals is recognized and catalyzed.
  5. The RWF recognizes that some assets are mobile (e.g., human capital) and others are not (e.g., most types of natural capital).
  6. The RWF recognizes that certain place-based or non-mobile assets may be owned by local residents, or by those outside the locality, and that property rights determine the distribution of the benefits that flow from these assets. Absentee ownership of natural capital, for example, may impact the wealth of a community very differently than would local ownership.
  7. The RWF includes both public and private assets, and recognizes that some assets may be primarily owned and controlled by individuals (e.g., private land), while others may be primarily publicly controlled (e.g., highways or airports).
  8. The RWF recognizes that certain non-mobile assets (e.g. recreational areas or national parks) have value to both those who live nearby and those who live far away.
  9. The RWF recognizes and makes explicit that collective action and governance play a major role in wealth creation and retention. For example, the public sector is a major generator of human capital through its investments in public education. Likewise, the public sector generates intellectual capital by creating and enforcing patent and copyright laws.
  10. The RWF recognizes that the distribution of assets is very important. For example, the distribution of assets across households can have an enormous impact on inter-generational social and economic mobility. Or, as another example, political capital that is not widely shared, but is concentrated in the hands of a few, may not benefit the entire community, state, or region.
  11. The RWF recognizes that individuals’ wealth depends not only on their own assets, and how they use them, but also on how the assets of their neighbors are used. For example, when individuals invest in cultural diversity, the wealth of other residents is enhanced.


All eight types of capital have a role to play in the Rural Cultural Wealth Lab. For the most part, however, the Lab will focus on how cultural capital is created, maintained, distributed, activated, or mobilized in the context of other capitals, in rural communities.

Rural Arts and Culture

Culture is a notoriously difficult term to define. In 1952, American anthropologists compiled a list of 164 different definitions, which varied in light of different usages of the word. Within the context of the Lab, we will refer to the UNESCO definition of culture adopted in the internationally recognized 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which states:

Culture should be regarded as the set of distinct spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of a society or social group, and that it encompasses in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions, and beliefs.

The most common use of the term “culture” is to describe the aggregate behaviors of any group operating at any scale, expressed through a combination of rituals and activities.

Like culture itself, the term “cultural capital” is defined in multiple ways. The Lab has adopted the following working definition of cultural capital, although examples/circumstances in from U.S. rural communities may refine this:

The stock of practices that reflect values and identities rooted in place, class, and/or ethnicity. Investments in cultural capital create or sustain the values, traditions, beliefs, and/or languages that become the currency to leverage other types of capital.

The study of cultural capital—the assets and relationships unique to rural arts and culture—is understandably a key driver of the Rural Cultural Wealth Lab. Nevertheless, other capitals are also of special interest. For example, natural capital is expected to play a critical role in the Lab’s research; such capital is abundant in rural areas and generally limited in urban areas.

Additionally, social capital (the stock of trust, relationships, and networks that support civic society) provides the “soft infrastructure” for (a) moving or accelerating curiosity, imagination, and creativity, and (b) providing a support structure for the entrepreneur.

Finally, human capital (the stock of education, skills, and mental health of people) has long been recognized as a critical element in community well-being, both in urban and rural areas. The Rural Cultural Wealth Lab will examine how cultural assets influence human capital in rural communities and thereby help to spur creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. For that matter, the Lab will build on research findings that in lagging rural regions, creativity is more important for prosperity than are human capital, patents, or high-tech industry employment.


Distinctions are helpful. Innovation can be thought of as the “ah ha moment,” the creative idea or intellectual breakthrough. Entrepreneurship is the vehicle (the artisan, the business person, the entrepreneurial support system, etc.) that allows innovation to reach practical fruition and to impact a community or society.

The Rural Cultural Wealth Lab will examine the link between cultural capital and innovation/entrepreneurship. Specifically, our research will determine the pathways of greatest relevance in linking cultural capital to innovation/entrepreneurship, especially civic innovation/entrepreneurship, within a rural context. In pursuing this goal, the Lab will rely heavily on theories of comprehensive rural wealth, as noted above.

Despite the vital need for communities to understand how a portfolio of capitals can work together to build wealth through innovative activities, scant research examines these interactions or the sequencing (or simultaneity) with which the phenomenon occurs.

The U.S. cultural infrastructure and its associated knowledge base are predominantly urban in character. And yet, this Lab’s existence reflects the growing momentum to recognize the distinct ways in which arts and culture benefit rural and indigenous communities. Concurrent with this growing knowledge, practitioners, policymakers, and funders have begun to more deeply engage with these concerns and constituencies.

Evidence-based practices must be reinforced, if we seek more inclusive dialogues and more responsive development strategies and public policies regarding rural arts and culture. Given our imperfect knowledge base, it is imperative a balance is struck between rigorous intellectual aspirations and practical approaches to build a solid foundation on which to generate substantive research, for years to come. This spadework must begin by recognizing the dearth of national statistics about the size, composition, capitalization, and evolution of the U.S. rural arts and culture ecology. Thus, the establishment and validation of a conceptual frame and a measurement model are absolutely essential products of the Rural Cultural Wealth Lab.

For starters, the formation of this Lab results from our belief that studying culture and cultural capital through a predominantly urban lens obscures important features of arts and culture in rural areas—a misunderstanding that can lead to imprecise and inaccurate policy prescriptions. While arts and cultural assets are equally important in both urban and rural areas, the latter type of community is often characterized by low population density, historical outmigration of youth, greater reliance on natural capital for livelihoods, and other traits that can account for differences in how arts and cultural assets and relationships are viewed in these settings.

Finally, the unique capital represented by rural arts and culture has implications for the prosperity and sustainability of urban communities, as well. After all, urban residents equally benefit from these essential rural contributions, as well as basic resources, such as food, energy and water.

Consistent with all above, the Rural Cultural Wealth Lab is designed to be a “living” lab, intentionally framing research hypotheses, questions, and metrics that will hold many diverse but related strands of knowledge, for the ultimate benefit of policy and practice.


Tom Johnson

Tom is the Frank Miller Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Professor Emeritus in the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri.

Kiley Arroyo

Kiley is an interdisciplinary research, management strategy, and evaluation consultant based in the Bay Area.

Matthew Fluharty

Matthew is the Founder and Executive Director of Art of the Rural, facilitator of its Middle Landscape projects, and a member of the M12 collective.

Sam Cordes

Sam joined Purdue University in 2003 and served in the following capacities: Associate Vice Provost for Engagement; Co-Director, Center for Regional Development; Assistant Director and Program Leader, Cooperative Extension; Professor of Agricultural Economics.

Emily Wornell

Dr. Emily J. Wornell is a research assistant professor in the Indiana Communities Institute at Ball State University working with the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) and the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI).


Chuck Fluharty

Chuck is the founder, President, and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), the only U.S. national policy institute solely dedicated to assessing the rural impacts of public policies.

Teresa Kittridge

Teresa Kittridge is the Vice President and COO of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI).  Teresa’s career has included Executive level service in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.  She has also been elected to public office.

Jocelyn Batko Richgels

Jocelyn Batko Richgels directs the policy outreach efforts for the RUPRI Rural Health and Human Services portfolio. Jocelyn’s career has included service as staff to a Member of Congress, as well as a Development Officer at Mills College and Advertising Sales Manager at The Atlantic Monthly magazine. She has served on the Maryland School of Public Policy Alumni Board for a number of years and currently lives in Washington DC.

Savannah Barrett

Savannah Barrett is the Director of Programs for Art of the Rural, where she co-founded the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange and collaborates with RUPRI on the Next Generation initiative. She serves on the board of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, the Robert Gard Foundation, and The Art of Community: Rural S.C. initiative, and previously guided community programs in Kentucky and Oregon.

Technical Working Group

Dr. Maribel Alvarez is an anthropologist, folklorist, writer, and curator. She holds the Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore at the Southwest Center, University of Arizona, where she also is Associate Professor in the School of Anthropology. She is the Executive Director of the Southwest Folklife Alliance, an affiliate nonprofit of the University of Arizona, which produces the annual Tucson Meet Yourself festival in addition to other 20+ programs connecting artisanal economies, foodways, and traditional arts to community planning and neighborhood-based economic  development. In 2018-19, she will also serve as a Place Making Policy Fellow at the Herberger Institute of the College of Arts and Design at ASU. Last year she completed a 6-year term appointment as a Trustee of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  Her work focuses mainly on bridging academic knowledge with practical skills of community development. She teaches, writes, and lectures nationally on methods of cultural analysis, food, oral narratives, visual cultures of the US-Mexico border, nonprofit management and leadership development, social theories of change, and Latino creativity and demographics. In 2009 she conducted research on wheat and identity in Sonora, Mexico as a Fulbright Fellow.

Dr. Bruce Balfour is a partner with the consulting group, Creative Insight Community Development. He received his PhD in Rural Sociology and his master’s degree in Community and Economic Development from Pennsylvania State University, where he was also a research consultant and development specialist in the Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education Department from 2014-2017. He holds a bachelor’s degree in science communications (journalism) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His research interests include arts-based community and economic development, arts incubators and rural entrepreneurship, creative communities, development of arts economies, civic engagement, relational network analysis, and organizational community development. He is currently preparing a creative community development course as part of a new online community and economic development certificate program for Sam Houston State University.

Prior to joining Penn State, Dr. Balfour was employed by Sandia National Laboratories in California, where he was co-founder and president of the i-GATE Innovation Hub (iHub) in Livermore, California and its associated small business technology incubator. He worked with the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to develop the Innovation Hub strategy for the State of California, and served on Governor Schwarzenegger’s review committee for the iHub program. For this successful effort, he received numerous community development and innovation awards from Governor Schwarzenegger, the California State Assembly, US Congress, the Federal Laboratory Consortium, the Alliance for Innovation, and the International Economic Development Council. Prior to Sandia, Dr. Balfour worked in partnership/business development and management positions for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NASA-Ames Research Center, and Pearson Education in San Francisco, where he was Director of Product and Business Development. He has also been an engineering test driver for Subaru’s Advanced Vehicle Development Group, a serial entrepreneur, a computer game designer/developer/director, a comic book writer, a novelist (six published, with one bestseller), and an apprentice fashion/commercial photographer. In his spare time, he is a metal sculptor and slowly continues to write novels. He lives in California and still is not sure what he wants to be when he grows up.


Dr. Linda Essig is Director of Herberger Institute Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs (HIEE) at Arizona State University. With specific expertise in arts venture incubation, she has helped over 3 dozen student teams develop enterprises in Arizona and beyond and her research is published in Journal of Art Management, Law, and Society, Entrepreneurship Research Journal, International Journal of Arts Management and elsewhere. She is the lead author of The Arizona Arts Entrepreneur Toolkit as well as several books on theatrical lighting design. She is currently working on a book of essays about the relationship between art, money, innovation, and entrepreneurial action. She has received support from the Kauffman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Tempe, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Commissioned research reports and resource guides can be downloaded from the HIEE Research page. She currently serves on the boards of directors of the Association for Arts Administration Educators and Rising Youth Theatre. Prior to joining ASU in 2004, she was on the faculty of University of Wisconsin-Madison for sixteen years. Her blog, covers arts entrepreneurship, arts policy, higher education in the arts and, occasionally, cooking. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix


Dr. Felicity Kelliher is a Senior Lecturer in Management at the School of Business, Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland and Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Partner Faculty Shanghai University, China. She is currently Chair of the Irish Academy of Management (2017- present) and a member of the Irish Research Council and the Royal Irish Academy Social Science Committee. A Fulbright Scholar, Felicity has published widely in the area of management capability development, rural community engagement and learning in small firms and has co-authored two books. As co-founder and senior researcher of the RIKON research group, Felicity has engaged with over 1200 small firms in service innovation, capability development and learning initiatives since 2007, supported by Failte Ireland, INTERREG and Enterprise Ireland, among others and was awarded the Knowledge Transfer Ireland Research2Business Collaborative Impact award in 2015 in recognition of this work. Before entering academia, Felicity worked internationally as a project manager in the technology sector.


Carlton Turner works across the country as a performing artist, arts advocate, policy shaper, lecturer, consultant, and facilitator. Carlton is also founder of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production. The MCCP uses arts and agriculture to support rural community, cultural, and economic development in his hometown of Utica, Mississippi where he lives with his wife Brandi and three children. Carlton is the former Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS. Carlton is co-founder and co-artistic director, along with his brother Maurice Turner, of the group M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction). M.U.G.A.B.E.E. is a Mississippi-based performing arts group that blends of jazz, hip-hop, spoken word poetry and soul music together with non-traditional storytelling.

He is currently on the board of First People’s Fund, Imagining America, the Center for Media Justice, and Project South for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide. Carlton is a member of the We Shall Overcome Fund Advisory Committee at the Highlander Center for Research and Education, a steering committee member of the Arts x Culture x Social Justice Network, and former Network of Ensemble Theaters steering committee member. Carlton is a 2017-18 Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow and a Cultural Policy Fellow at the Creative Placemaking Institute at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design in the Arts. In 2011 Carlton was awarded the M. Edgar Rosenblum award for outstanding contribution to Ensemble Theater by Irondale Ensemble Project in Brooklyn, NY.  In 2013 Carlton was named to the Kennedy Center Honors Artist Advisory Board and M.U.G.A.B.E.E. is a recipient of the 2015 Otto René Castillo Awards for Political Theatre recipient.


Dr. Tim Wojan is a senior economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service.  The intersection of innovation, the arts, and economic dynamism in rural areas has been a central interest growing out of his seminal research on the rural creative class.  This research has been published in the Journal of Economic Geography and Regional Studies and been presented at conferences organized by the OECD and Harvard Business School.  Tim also led development of the 2014 Rural Establishment Innovation Survey that provides a new window on innovation processes within rural firms and the local contextual factors associated with innovation.  His principal avocation is jazz trombone which has provided first-hand experience of the arts as a stimulus of associative thinking that is the foundation of all innovation.  Combining the arts with economics was encouraged at Oberlin College where he received his BA, and even survived the rigors of a PhD program in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin, under the tutelage of Prof. Glen Pulver.


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