creative:impact - 'The Artrain That Could' Celebrates 50 Years!

Feb 9, 2021

Artrain board member Damian Farrell
Credit Damian Farrell / Artrain
In 1971, a group of Michigan arts activists put art on a train to deliver it to people in small towns.  They believed everyone should have access to arts and cultural programs.  Artrain board member Damian Farrell recounts the Artrain legacy and vision that remains vital 50 years later.  He joins Deb Polich and David Fair on this edition of "creative:impact."  Listen here.

Deb Polich, President and CEO of The Arts Alliance

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy.  In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of The Arts Alliance, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


Artrain was conceptualized by a group of arts activists who believed that the arts should be available to everyone, everywhere. Inspired by Mr. E. Ray Scott and Mrs. Helen Milliken, a former First Lady of Michigan, the newly formed Michigan Council for the Arts (MCA) started Artrain in Detroit in 1971 as its flagship program. 

Artrain co-founder Ray Scott
Credit Artrain /


MCA leadership had three goals in mind: to foster the development of local arts organizations throughout the Michigan, to provide people in villages, towns and cities access to outstanding art exhibitions and to promote the MCA.  They decided that putting art on a train and touring across the state would accomplish their goals and set out to create Artrain as a short-term – perhaps two-year – project.  In its first year, 191,000 visitors in 28 Michigan communities climbed onboard.  The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) took notice and within three years of its founding, Artrain headed to the Rocky Mountains on an eight-state tour sponsored by the NEA.  Artrain became an independent nonprofit in 1975, sharing the world’s greatest artists with more than 850 communities and reaching millions of people since.

Artrain co-founder Helen Milliken in 1971.
Credit Artrain /


Throughout its history, Artrain has been a cultural and community catalyst.  Understanding that engaging the full community was key to a successful project, Artrain developed a community-building program intended to guide local hosts in reaching across sectors to involve hundreds of people while simultaneously developing local cultural capacity. Stressing that anyone could become involved, regardless of their background, Artrain has helped local communities build support and engage volunteers in everything from scheduling tours to site preparation, raising funds and serving as program guides.

The lasting impact that Artrain has had on the communities it has served over the years ranges from inspiring communities to make a deeper investment in the infrastructure of their cultural sector to helping diverse constituencies build working relationships that serve their community for years.

With a solid reputation behind it, Artrain’s past exhibition partners and lenders have included The Smithsonian Institution, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The National Air and Space Museum and The Heard Museum among countless other cultural institutions of the highest reputation.

The Ford Foundation, MetLife Foundation, The William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation and numerous other private foundations and donors have endorsed Artrain’s exhibitions with their support, enabling Artrain to include works by many of the world’s most recognized and reputed artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Dale Chihuly, Willem de Kooning, Robert Indiana, Jacob Lawrence, Dan Namingha, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and James Wyeth.

Artrain members receiving the National Medal for Museum Service with First Lady Laura Bush (far right)
Credit Artrain /


In tribute to its legacy 2006 Artrain received the National Medal for Museum Service – the nation’s highest award for institutions that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities using that extraordinary and innovative approaches to community engagement and development.

In 2008, as the rail industry restricted access to its railways, Artrain retired and sold its museum-on-a-train.  Though the train was gone, Artrain’s mission, experience, commitment to and success of strengthening the field of arts and creativity was not. Artrain’s board adapted. It kept its award winning community building program at its core and continued to define community broadly: geographically or as people connected by common interests as it transformed  Artrain into a project management, administrative and fiscal sponsorship service business. Today, Artrain’s clients include artists and/or arts and cultural institutions intent on producing and delivering art-infused outreach programs of all types – art, culture, history, science, environment and more – to people in villages, towns and cities and continue to expand personal horizons and strengthen local cultural infrastructure.

Artrain was founded by the visionary leaders of the Michigan Council for the Arts to reach Michigan communities in desperate need of cultural activities.  With wild success, Artrain is still moving forward five decades later.  Thank you to those who are committed to our vision: that everyone should have access to outstanding arts and cultural programs regardless of their location or economic status.  Your support has made it possible to touch the lives of countless people.



Artrain: Our History

Artrain Board of Directors

Artrain Programs: 1971-Now

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at