The Arts and Economic Development by Ron Stacy

I’d like to address the importance of the arts as a force for economic development in your community, without even mentioning the enormous benefit to the quality of your lives. That’s a whole other story. First, I would like to dispel a couple of myths and throw out a couple of statistics you might find interesting.

Myth #1…

A Person Employed in the Arts

What is that? Most people immediately conjure up an image of a poverty stricken, young, dirty, hairy and paint spattered radical. That’s the myth; the reality is that the term encompasses the artisans, the galleries, the art supply store employees, the dance school operator, the community theatre production companies and the landscape painter, to mention only a few.

Myth #2…

Public Funding of the Arts is Charity and a Waste of Money

Wrong! Intelligent investment in the arts returns better dividends than most other investments, especially in the long term. In the Victoria area, each dollar invested in the arts has returned, on average, $28.50. I think most would agree that’s a very sound investment. One little town in our region, Chemainus was close to death with the imminent shutdown of their lifeblood, ‘The Sawmill’. They invested about $250,000 in 33 murals. That’s less than $7500 each. That revitalized their economy to the point where they now have an annual infusion of more than 25 million dollars from tourism! Every year! Not only that, but that kind of energy instigated the building of a terrific theatre with its own professional production company. A huge number of interesting new businesses have sprung up as well.

The Royal British Columbia Museum invested $250,000 in bringing the Leonardo daVinci exhibit to Victoria. They managed to make a tidy profit for themselves, of course, but the surrounding community was treated to more than $92,000,000 of tourist money as a result. That’s a 368 to 1 return.

One more example, also close to home. In Sidney, a town of about 10,000, an artist named Robert Bateman allowed a local gallery to have a ten day preview and show of a group of paintings destined for an exhibit in South Africa. About 17,000 people came from all over the world to see his show. Many bought prints and some bought originals, paying $20,000 and more per painting. The hotels, motels and B&Bs were full, you couldn’t find a seat in a restaurant and local store owners were enjoying the fruits of cultural tourism. One greeting card shop owner told me that a typical Sunday’s take was about $200, but on the Bateman Sunday it leaped to $1800. How many greeting cards is that?!

Now for the statistics

More than half of Canadians employed in the arts live in BC; Vancouver Island, The Gulf Islands and the Lower Mainland. In BC, there are more people employed in the arts than in the forest industry. There are more people employed in the arts than in the mining industry and agriculture combined. Given these numbers, it would certainly make sense to be known as an advocate and promoter of this industry, whether you are a business person, a politician or a banker.

The Cultural Tourist

As opposed to a regular visitor, (ie, a sports event attendee, a conference attendee, eco-tourist or a family visitor), the average cultural tourist is better educated, enjoys more disposable income, uses commercial lodgings, spends more time exploring an area, attends more functions and events and has a more varied range of interests.

During the Victoria Commonwealth Games, I had occasion to travel to downtown Victoria, which I expected to be crowded beyond reason. I was amazed to find it almost deserted. I talked to a sales clerk in the Eaton’s Store (she had precious little else to do) who told me they had hired lots of extra staff in expectation of the crowds, and had almost immediately sent them all home for lack of something to do. I guess the hot dog vendors at the sports venues did all right.

Our Resources

Out here in the west, we’ve based our economy on our natural resources; wood products, minerals and fish. Now the mills are closing, the gold is gone and the salmon are getting fewer and smaller. People are even shooting sea lions for having the audacity to eat these precious fish! Things are looking pretty grim in the resources department.

That’s what was happening in Chemainus when the town almost folded. But one man, Karl Shutz, who had a vision and the patience of Job, insisted that cultural tourism could bring fiscal stability. I say patience, because it took a decade to convince the ‘powers that be’ to give him the opportunity to make it work. He did. He didn’t do it for the money. He was already retired at the age of forty one. Now in his seventies, he has people excited about their revitalization projects all over the world. Not around here of course, but in Washington, California, Arizona, Florida, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and other places around the world.

It’s high time we paid attention to his message. The essential elements are in place. All those people who work in the arts are the resource we need. In fact, this is one resource that gets stronger the more you use it. The Arts & Cultural Accord, with its offshoot, the Arts & Cultural Highway, is a society dedicated to using this region’s art and culture as a resource for economic development. Members include towns and cities, artists and artisans, various hospitality businesses and tourism associations.

All have an interest in creating the perfect destination for the world’s cultural tourists to experience. The highway I mentioned refers to a loop involving Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Sunshine Coast, which, by no coincidence, is the area where all those arts people reside.

All over the United States, there are towns looking to their arts and culture as an economic development force. Some of them have dealt with Karl Schutz and I’ve seen the unsolicited letters of appreciation and gratitude they send him. In the U.S. there is a government funding body called the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA which is spreading seed money around in all directions to help stimulate cultural tourism. They recognize that cultural tourism is becoming a major industry, as it has been for a very long time in Europe and the approachable countries in the East.

I entered the term ‘Arts Initiative’ in my internet browser and got 549,000 entries! There are individuals, groups and organizations all around us who are actively seeking to make their region attractive to cultural tourists. They’ve been doing this for 20 years. That means we have 20 years of catching up to do.

There was an article in the February, 2001 edition of ‘The Crafts Report’ which tells of the city of Paducah, Kentucky initiating a bold revitalization program for their downtown core. They call it the ‘Paducah Artist Relocation Program’, and they aim to “…strengthen the existing cultural community, rehabilitate neglected parts of the city and increase tourism” through tax incentives, low interest loans, marketing and promotional support and a host of other benefits. I don’t think they’ll regret it. Wouldn’t it be exciting if the civic and business leaders in our area did something as sensible as that?

Now What?

So what can we do to get on board? It’s not difficult. Make a commitment to developing this huge resource that we’re knee deep in. Let it be known that we welcome those who create our culture; let’s create incentives for art educators, theatre groups and other performers; create an atmosphere of festivity and energy in your downtown with public art, whether murals, sculptures or street performance or all the above.

Support your local Community Arts Council, whether with office space, latitude with public adornment or even with public praise and acknowledgment of achievements. Enact some tax incentives for citizens who assist in artistic ventures and encourage public institutions to support the arts in various ways. Encourage artists to have exhibitions and sell work from their home studios. Why not hold some meetings with the various art groups and see what they need? And here’s a concept… then you give it to them! There are myriad ways to demonstrate your commitment. You’ll be surprised how such an atmosphere will enrich your lives in every way!

I have witnessed the benefits the artists bring with them when they move into a community. Yorkville, in Toronto, was a rundown slum until artists discovered it was affordable. After they moved in, galleries opened, then the boutiques, and then the smart set came, and it became the ’Place To Be’. Closer to home, just look at Granville Island in Vancouver. There’s a before and after picture if there ever was one! That’s why many U.S. cities are recruiting artists to move into their downtown core… they’re smart!

It’s well known that artists are very community minded. They are the first group approached for donations of their work to be auctioned off to raise money for whatever good cause. They are an asset, and to repeat myself, an incredible resource for their community.

All this is but a tiny bit of information to start you thinking about the value of art and culture to your community. I’ve given you a couple of statistics and a few precedents, but it’s the whole community that will have to do the work. A little bit of research will, I’m sure, convince you of the viability of arts and culture as an economic development tool. The main thing is to commit to the vision and see it through. You’ll find there are a lot of people only too willing to jump in and help with all the work once you show the direction. They just need the support and dedication of their community behind them and they’ll make it happen.

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One Response to “The Arts and Economic Development by Ron Stacy”

  1. Love your message Ron. Every business in Summerland should have a copy of this. Not only should businesses engage in the revitilazation of their town, they should purchase art from the artists in their community. The town’s business owners can display their art with pride in their homes, offices, restaurants ,hotels and boutiques. A perfect time for the business community to meet the artists is during your upcoming Studio Tour– Art Trip.. May 19 and 20. 2012

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