While University students may enjoy artwork by simply strolling down State Street and encountering Orion — hello, giant orange statue — not all cities are able to so readily enjoy arts and culture. That’s where Artrain comes in.

Artrain is an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization that transports cultural exhibitions to communities around the nation that lack facilities like museums. Artrain has featured collections including the works of Andy Warhol and Luis Jiménez, and it has made more than 850 community visits all over the country, from Royal Oak, Mich. to Alaska. The organization’s mission is the deliverance of arts and culture to places that may not otherwise have such exhibitions in order to educate and transform communities, organizations and individuals.

Artrain was founded in 1971 by E. Ray Scott, an arts advocate and former executive director of the Michigan Council for the Arts. What started as a short-term statewide project gradually grew into the full-fledged organization Artrain is today. Though the exhibits were originally transported via locomotive, the museum-on-a-train officially retired in 2007 due to increased regulations and demands on the rail system. Additionally, railway routes and schedules restricted Artrain’s ability to travel to certain communities. In addressing these obstacles, Debra Polich, Artrain president and CEO, said the Artrain team engaged in some significant self-reflection.

“Does our mission have anything to do with the train? No,” Polich said. “Our mission really has to do with taking arts and culture to communities that don’t have it, and helping them develop and strengthen their (artistic and cultural) infrastructure.”

In 2008, the organization left the iron horses behind and began transitioning to MMUs, which are expandable semi-trailers able to create environments appropriate for hosting original artwork and artifacts. But while in the process of switching to MMUs, Polich explained quite frankly, “The world blew up. The economy crashed … and it set us back on our heels quite a bit.”

As a result, Artrain’s goal of “delivering discovery” has somewhat suffered. Its current project, “Infinite Mirror: Images of American Identity” — an exhibition that focuses on how various Americans view themselves — was originally supposed to be a mobile show, but was forced to forgo the MMUs due to financial concerns. Currently stationed at Keene State College in New Hampshire, the project will soon be moved to the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, where it will remain until April 2012.

While a main part of Artrain’s mission is moving artistic and cultural exhibits to communities that otherwise would not be able to host such displays, the “Infinite Mirror” diverges from this goal given the artwork is stationary for prolonged periods of time and is being shown at already-established art galleries.

“Today, we’re open to mobile projects, but they remain expensive and the economy has still not returned to such a point where it’s easy to provide projects of a million dollars or more,” Polich explained. “If we don’t use mobile facilities, what are our other options? Can we define delivery differently than just on a mobile vehicle?”

For Artrain’s “Paths to Peace: a War of 1812 Arts Legacy Project,” the organization used a method of delivery that was neither by train nor MMU. In October, “Paths to Peace” brought 150 students from Amherstberg, Ontario by boat to Put-in-Bay, Ohio to meet 150 local students. During their seminar, the students worked with War of 1812 specialists from Canada and the U.S. in artist workshops. The students are now working on a project in which they create their own artwork related to their communities’ ties to the War of 1812.

In May, the students will again meet at Fort Malden in Canada and the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay to display their artwork to the general public. In this manner, “Paths to Peace” exemplifies Artrain’s goal of serving as a “community catalyst” in that it works to connect communities to not only the artwork, but to one another.

“We hope what we’re doing with that is opening these young people’s minds to exploring a conflict from three perspectives — Canada’s, Native Americans’ and ours,” Polich said. “There’s always another point of view.”

Though Artrain had to alter its programming in recent years, the MMUs aren’t gathering dust. Artrain plans to use the mobile museum for its 2012 “Hands-On Alternative Energy Exhibition.” Historically the focus has been on transporting artwork specifically, but the organization has recently emphasized delivering a wider range of projects. Its 2012 “Hands-On Alternative Energy” exhibition will lack artwork entirely — Polich explained the education component of the exhibition is what makes it still relevant to the mission of Artrain.

“The intention is to provide as much access to kids, their families (and) adults that generally might not take part in a cultural experience,” she said. “Taking art projects to these towns is great but there are other types of museums that these communities don’t have either, like science, cultural or history museums.”

In moving such programs around, Artrain has received assistance from members of the University community. ‘U’ alum Jason Polan traveled with the organization back in its train days as part of the Allesee Fellowship, a program offered to recent college graduates. An artist himself, Polan spent about a year touring, including a trip all the way up to Alaska, performing a variety of duties such as preparing exhibits, helping with volunteer training and creating and discussing artwork to students in classrooms.

While on tour, Polan also worked on his project, the “Taco Bell Drawing Club,” which essentially involves drawing people at Taco Bell and inviting others to draw with him. He continues the club today, citing Artrain as an influence.

“A lot of the positive reactions I got to the projects I was working on made what I was doing then affect the way I do things now,” Polan said. “I still like doing projects where I get to interact with a lot of people.”

Artrain has inspired college students on the administration end as well. ‘U’ alum Nathan Zamarron also traveled with Artrain, working as an administrative assistant while still in school and then accepting a full-time position as office manager upon graduation.

After spending three years on the road, Zamarron described his experience with Artrain as amazing and inspiring for the communities he visited and himself. Zamarron attributes Artrain to helping him find his career path in administration and community organization in the arts. He now works as community arts manager for the Lexington, Ky. arts council, LexArts.

“That experience of really getting to see first-hand the living working artist was something special,” Zamarron said. “You could find out that, wow, there are people actually making a living supporting themselves in the arts. Artrain made me realize that that was a possibility.”

And Zamarron certainly isn’t the only one who thinks Artrain is special. The many unusual artistic opportunities Artrain has created have earned the organization nationwide recognition. In 2006, it won the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which honors organizations that make extraordinary changes in the community. In response to the medal and all it represents, Polich expressed her pride and confidence in Artrain’s future.

“Having Artrain’s work acknowledged in that way was very validating in every single way,” Polich said.

Polich added that the organization still looks to the award for guidance, despite all of the changes that have occurred since.

“We’re still pretty humbled by it. It makes you want to continue to live up to that standard.”

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