By Guest Columnist DAVE PETERSON, co-founder of Atlanta-based global consulting company North Highland
All people, particularly children, need art and cultural experiences. Children need arts and culture because it promotes brain development. Adults and families need them as a way to lift themselves from the weights and measures of today’s reality.
Cities and communities need arts and culture to promote quality of life and enhance economic development. Through those artistic and cultural experiences, we all connect ourselves to the world around us in different ways and are better off for it personally and financially.
Have you ever seen the wonder on the face of a child while they are finger painting? Have you ever heard a piece of music and felt transported for a few minutes to a time or place beyond yourself? Have you ever attended an artistic performance and learned about people in situations foreign to yourself, but intimately familiar? Have you ever shaken your head at someone’s art form and said “I just don’t get it.”
Congratulations, what you witnessed is the transformative power of arts and cultural to contribute to people’s quality of life. By definition if it’s creative, it will be different, and not all tastes are the same. It’s why many believe arts and culture are essential in our lives and should receive financial support from public money.
For more than a dozen years, members of the business, government and arts and culture community have been working together to identify and document the value of arts and culture in the metro Atlanta area. The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Arts Task Force of 2001 confirmed the value of arts and culture to communities and created MAACC, the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition.
MAACC brought hundreds of leaders from business, government and the cultural community together to craft a position on the value in the region of arts and culture. MAACC is now being absorbed and embraced by the Atlanta Regional Commission. The ARC has seen the value of arts and culture planning for the future quality of life in the metro Atlanta 10-county area.
But it’s not just one regional plan: the beauty of arts and culture is that it can be locally defined and place specific, while simultaneously building regional capacity and reputation.
Quality of life
“Quality of life” has surfaced as a topic that engages individuals and local communities. Preliminary cultural inventory and mapping of all nonprofit cultural groups and facilities has already undertaken by the ARC in the 10-county region and confirms communities want arts and culture included in their future planning. It’s a way of locally distinguishing the separate communities while linking back to a larger regional landscape.
Arts and culture doesn’t have to be tutus and toe shoes. It can be local artisans and crafts, folk art and music, and unique cultural elements that are as diverse as our population and our histories. Just look at the Georgia State Fair held recently in Henry County at the Atlanta Motor speedway: different from NASCAR events normally held there but equally popular with visitors throughout the state and beyond. For a week, this cultural smorgasbord drew crowds that learned about Georgia products, visited rides and attractions, and spent money.
This is why cultural events are popular with communities: they are sparks that drive economic multiples as people come for the experience then spend money on food, beverages, collectables and lodging. Not surprisingly, arts and cultural events have higher spending multiples than sports events.
Arts and culture good for business
When new businesses consider relocation to an area, they have lots of criteria to consider in their decision. Financial incentives, transportation and education are typically at the top of the list. But access to arts and culture is cited more and more as a basis for relocation.
Highly talented and educated people expect great cultural offerings for themselves and their children, and metro areas that recognize and plan for vibrant arts and cultural offerings are positioned to attract more jobs and knowledge workers. Think Boeing and its move to Chicago a few years ago.
Want some local examples of economic development anchored by arts: look around Midtown’s Woodruff Art Center complex at the multi- billion dollar growth in real estate development and values in the area. Businesses have flocked to the area to share the vibrancy that art access delivers. Or how about Cherokee County’s Elm Street Cultural Arts Village, created as a new local destination for events and festivals and “to do what arts organizations always do – uplift and inspire the community to make our daily surroundings more beautiful and educate our children in the power of creativity.”
How about looking at the small southwest Georgia town of Colquitt, where an entire community rallied around a local folk pageant of back-country culture. Now, 20 years later, the annual theatrical production “Swamp Gravy” has been seen by tens of thousands and the money visiting tourists spend has saved the entire town.
We have strong artistic bones here already: the ARC recently released facts from a nationwide study showing Atlanta was number 1 among its peer cities in the US for arts related jobs and number 3, behind San Francisco and Denver, for arts related businesses. But it’s not just about the thousands of employees or companies in art related industries, it is also the influence of arts and cultural on all of us.
Joe Bankoff, now at the Nunn School of Georgia Tech but previously CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, spoke recently at my Rotary Club. He asked the group of nearly 200 men and women to stand if they had participated in some form of arts activity in their youth like music, dance, painting, or theatre: nearly every person present stood up. He then asked those standing if they made a living today in an arts related field and nearly everyone standing sat down. The point drove home how much exposure to arts as children had positively influenced the lives of so many of us.
Development of minds
Which is probably the most important reason for everyone to support greater funding of arts and culture in the first place: it’s about children and educational quality. As a region and state, we are sorely lacking in “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in our schools. STEM has been recognized as a key educational priority for metro Atlanta schools and all of Georgia, and to remain market competitive, we need strong analytical thinkers and quantitative talent.
These “left brain” skills are value drivers in our global economy. Yet study after study shows that when children are exposed to art and creative programs, they benefit by 100 or more points on the SAT and other standardized tests. “Right brain” thinking has been shown to be the basis creativity and innovation. There is artistry in the right brain, and education in the arts enables children to aspire beyond what they may currently experience.
The certainty of a world where left brain facts are “black or white” gives way to a more diverse and interesting world where right brain “greys and colors” are possible. In other words, we need both sides of the brain working to remain competitive and to prosper. Schools adding arts infused programs would produce real power from “STEAM.”
It comes down to money and priorities
Most states support public funding for non-profit cultural institutions, but not Georgia. Georgia’s funding for the arts has consistently been at the nationwide bottom and has shrunken further in the economic downturn. Depending on the year, Georgia ranks between 47 and 50 in cultural spending out of the 50 states. Counties and cities in the area have also cut funding for arts, although Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been a creative leader in finding some funds in these tight budget times. He sees the arts as an investment multiplier.
So the search for money for arts and culture continues. Interestingly, sample polling across Georgia in the past two years for a fractional sales tax to fund arts and culture was very positive when the money would be restricted to fund county directed projects. Public mistrust demonstrated by the TSPLOST vote results when spending control leaves local control. Another arts funding possibility was a tax on dining-out food and beverage. While local restaurant groups didn’t hate the idea, it still was a new tax and who wants that now?
Or we could look at a funding source that is currently being debated in Atlanta/Fulton County. How should the nearly $40 million collected annually from visitors through the hotel/motel tax best be spent? Should it be used to buy down other taxes, or should it go to the Atlanta Falcon’s organization in the form of debt payments on a new stadium for them. Or should it fund other, more diversified cultural events?
Clearly in the South, football is cultural. But how much of the hotel/motel tax budget should be spent on any one venue or organization? Is there a better “portfolio” of investments that Atlanta/Fulton County should fund to attract visitors and businesses while supporting quality of life for the ones already here?
If you answered “invest some of that money in local arts and culture” then you probably get the links between improving quality of life, economic development and helping shape our region’s “brand.” You probably think we need more funds helping develop the left and right brains of our children and a little less money spent on things that may cause brain damage.
If you think we should put some portion of our public hotel/motel tax funds and other public money in aspirational investments that enhance the perceptions of our youth and build creative muscle, then reach out to your city, county and state leaders. Ask them to make investments in all our futures through arts and cultural institutions.