A lifelong love for the arts started for Randy Maluchnik as a dare in high school.
As he tells it, he “stumbled into the arts” when he was a student, trying to make a splash at his new high school in Casper, Wyo., where he was the new kid, and, he thinks back now, to impress his father.
“My younger brother was good at sports,” said Maluchnik, a commissioner in Carver County, Minn., for the past 11 years. “I played, but I wasn’t a star.”
When Maluchnik’s family fell on hard times during his high school years, they left Johnstown, Pa. for Wyoming, to better their chances of making ends meet; Maluchnik got a job there as a fry cook at a drive-in. “I made the best pizza burgers and homemade onion rings,” he said. In addition to his fry cook job, he also worked at a local radio station, where he made $1.10 an hour.
He thought about dropping out of high school to work as a cook full-time, but on a dare, he signed up to perform in a show called The Follies, which his new school put on each year to raise money for the junior-senior dance. He sang Tea for Two with another student and did the Charleston. In another play, he performed as Old Man Grant, a character who was coming home tipsy to Mrs. Grant, who surprised him when he returned home. “I was supposed to look frightened,” he said. “I got laughs and applause. I was hooked after that.”
“The arts kind of turned me around,” he said. And also, caught his father’s attention. His stint in the follies led to more performances, including a turn in a high school production of Hello Dolly!
“My dad said he was proud of me,” Maluchnik said.
A big white rabbit
During college, while studying broadcasting, the acting bug bit again. Maluchnik volunteered to perform with a children’s theater and “played a big white rabbit in The Bad Children, a musical. The group performed for children at the Wind River Reservation, near his junior college. He also directed a college production of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam.
Later, at the University of Wyoming, he worked again at a radio station, where he interviewed actor Vincent Price and folk musician Arlo Guthrie.
Although arts played a role in his student days, Maluchnik said after college, he needed to pay the bills. Before becoming a county commissioner, his jobs included working for the National Guard as a recruiter, and then working as a staffer for Minnesota Rep. David Minge (D), who represented Minnesota’s second congressional district. After the congressman lost a race, Maluchnik took a job with Veterans Affairs and then ran for the Chaska, Minn. City Council.
“My dad was a big believer in public service,” he said. It was something of a family tradition. His grandfather had worked as a township supervisor back in Pennsylvania.
Four years later, Maluchnik ran for a seat on the Carver County, Minn. Board of Commissioners and won. Now in his 11th year as a commissioner, he is most proud of how he has helped weave his love of the arts into his community, he said.
Preserving culture through the arts
One of his endeavors, which initially left some of his fellow commissioners scratching their heads, was helping get photographs of barns hung inside the courthouse. “The other four commissioners thought I was nuts,” he said with a laugh. He was just looking for ways to liven up the place. “I didn’t know what I was looking for until we sat down and talked about it,” he said. “I grew up in a place (Pennsylvania) where we saw a lot of the barns go away. I miss some of those barns and the culture that goes with them. Younger people don’t know about that culture. You can preserve the culture through the arts.”
Through his past association with veterans, Maluchnik also helped lead an effort to start a local writing group for them. “I got the idea from NACo,” he said. “I brought the idea back and turned it over to our library director.” The group met over several days, writing about their feelings and their experiences, Maluchnik said. “It’s a way for them to mend and heal.”
Farm restoration, barn quilts
Maluchnik is proud of one of the biggest cultural projects in Carver County, the restoration and preservation of a local farm, the Andrew Peterson Farm. “This is farming culture,” he said. Peterson emigrated in 1850 from Sweden to the United States, keeping a daily diary for 40 years — from the time of his voyage until the day before he died. His diaries were turned into a book by Swedish journalist Vilhelm Moberg. Today, the farm is open for tours by appointment and is also open to student groups. Maluchnik hopes that one day the farm will feature live performances.
The farm is a part of “ag tourism,” in the county, which also includes “barn quilts,” which are large murals of quilts painted on barns. The county showcases 24 larger than life replicas of quilt blocks on barns throughout the county. A self-guided driving tour map is available online.
“It brings people out to our county,” Maluchnik said. “Arts and culture create an environment where this can flourish.”
Maluchnik has also brought his love for the arts to some of NACo’s conferences, where he’s helped arrange performances by military bands and choral groups. He’s hoping that next year’s conference in Nashville-Davidson County, will include performances by local artists. “Exposing us elected officials to the culture of a region is a cool thing to do,” he said. “It probably helps us do our jobs better.”
If your county is trying to figure out how to bring arts to the forefront, Maluchnik advises that you identify artists in the community and organize an informal discussion with them about place-making. “They’re going to find out that there are more resources than they know about,” he said. “You don’t have to put public money into it. You can show your support by writing letters to the editor or an op/ed for the local paper.”
Maluchnik’s love for the arts has been recognized. At NACo’s recent Annual Conference in Franklin County, Ohio, the Americans for the Arts and NACo announced that Maluchnik was the recipient of the Public Leadership in the Arts Award for County Arts Leadership. The award honors an elected county board or individual leader who has significantly advanced the arts in the communities they serve.
“It is truly the best award I’ve ever received,” he said. “I think my father would have been surprised.”