Our History

A little more than 40 years ago, 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. 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.

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.

Artrain effects lasting change by working with leaders in the host community to galvanize financial and public support for the Artrain visit, imparting lessons and experience that far outlast the specific event. Artrain’s legacy is evidenced by what it leaves behind. In Michigan alone, Artrain helped form at least 80 local arts agencies and nationwide, it has helped start or strengthen hundreds more. Countless individuals from schoolchildren to grandparents have experienced Artrain and many have gone on to make art part of their lives as practitioners, patrons, advocates and/or volunteers.

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.

Winner of the National Medal for Museum Service, Artrain today continues its mission to deliver discovery and – through the power of arts and culture – transform lives, organizations and communities. Originally using America’s rail system to deliver art exhibitions, Artrain now delivers cultural outreach programs to people in villages, towns and cities everywhere through a variety of methods including mobile touring exhibitions and cultural education and engagement programs. Since its founding in 1971, more than 3.2 million people have visited Artrain during more than 850 community visits across the nation.

In 1971, 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 40 years later, traversing the country delivering art, science, history and educational programs and ultimately delivering discovery.  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 and mark this 40 year milestone.

Mr. B’s Joybox Express, 2014

Artrain produced Mr. B’s Joybox Express Mississippi River Road Ride, an epic 1,840 mile journey along the Mississippi River to spread the joy of music and movement. Internationally recognized jazz and blues musician Mark “Mr. B” Braun dreamed up the idea of the Joybox Express, a 387 lb. piano on wheels, to parade, educate and share the sounds of blues, jazz and boogie-woogie tunes.

With the help of Artrain and support of many enthusiasts that’s exactly what he has done! The tour began in Lake Itasca, MN on September 1, 2014 with a rousing kickoff concert by the Mr. B’s Joybox Express Band and concluded in New Orleans, LA on November 14, 2014.

Communities along the Mississippi River welcomed Mr. B’s Joybox Express into their schools, streets, homes, businesses, organizations and musical venues. Over the course of the 75 day tour the Mr. B’s Joybox Express performed for a total of 32,276 people; 11,133 at concerts, 1,668 at school programs and 19,475 at spontaneous roadside concerts!

View the report (infographic).