When I started yesterday’s blog post it was supposed to be a commentary on one of my favorite business segments in Kent — artists — but I ended up carrying on so much about clusters and the economic ecology of our university city that I never quite made it to the end zone with the artists so I’ll try again today. A couple of weeks ago Main Street Kent hosted it’s annual Wine and Arts festival downtown and judging from the long lines at the wine booths the event appears to have been a great success. Keep in mind this wasn’t a county fair grounds copy-cat arts event with booths lined up as far as the eye can see. Nope, it was classic Kent, which means it was small — or as we say, right-sized — a bit understated, intimate and interesting. Quirky is in these days and Kent’s got quirky to spare. And quirky loves the arts which is why I see harnessing the power of the arts as smart business for Kent.
The mystique of the starving artist is much more soul affirming than viewing artists as a money making machine but don’t judge this book by their cover and don’t under-estimate the money making capabilities of a savvy bunch of artisans. The arts mean business and those cities that can see beyond the window dressing of tie-dye t-shirts and sandals have been able to create a supportive business environment to grow this valuable economic asset.
Sure, we all enjoy the intrinsic value of the arts — the beauty, the inspiration, the calming, the thought provoking — but the good news is that there’s more to the arts than meets the eye. A 2007 national arts report credited the arts industry for generating $166 billion in economic activity. That’s a 24% increase over the last 5 years while the rest of our economy seems to be dying on the vine. These are real jobs that stay local and that’s millions in tax dollars that are re-invested in our communities.
In the dog eat dog, take no prisoners race to attract new industries locally, cities spend thousands on advertising and promoting their home towns — all in the name of business attraction and recruitment. Then, if we’re lucky enough to actually get their attention, we are often asked to give away the farm in tax abatements and deferrals to close the deal. And if we can’t afford it, there’s another city right next store that is ready with their check in hand. It’s the ugly reality of business development.
We’ve got to keep a hand in the business development game to stay diversified but we are much more interested in growing what we’ve got, and one thing we’ve got is the arts, which by it’s nature is a local thing. From an economic sustainability perspective the mantra has to be keep it local because what is spent locally stays local, and that’s particularly true in the arts.
Interestingly, local attendees to arts events spend an average of $19.53 per event while those out of towners are a little looser with their pocket books spending twice this amount or $40.19 per person. So when we attract arts and culture tourists we are leveraging significant economic rewards.
The last thing I want to do is to re-cast the arts as another commoditized product that has become so commercialized that it seems souless by speaking only to the money making side of this industry but equally I don’t think we should undersell the role of the arts in turning the wheels of our local economy. In that spirit, let us worry about the business side of the arts; you just need to be a fan, take your kids, walk around the displays, live in the right side of your brain for a couple of hours, eat and drink a little, and watch Kent’s characters in their natural environment.
The people watching in Kent is as entertaining as the products being bought and sold — it’s part of our charm. And yes, those characters are real.