The Selling Of Culture

December 30, 2005
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LANSING — The stage is being set for cultural organizations and performing arts groups to play a major role in the new economy. And the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries has stepped into the spotlight to direct the action.

HAL recently released a strategy that proposes to leverage the state's creative talent and cultural assets into economic growth, which, if done right, will build prosperity within local communities across the state.

The HAL report lists six objectives that need to be completed to achieve its economic goal. One is to provide up-to-date data on the market and non-market values of arts and cultural activity, along with the best practices of those groups.

"We are going to, in this cultural economic development strategy we're rolling out, develop an online tool to measure the economic impact of the cultural sector," said William Anderson, director of HAL.

"We've all done studies all over the nation, and we spend a whole ton of money doing these and then they're soon out of date as things change rapidly. The beauty of doing this online is we will always be current. It will be on demand and I'll be able to give concrete, quantifiable data that is current," he added.

MichiganStateUniversity is working with HAL to set up the online databank, which may be up and running by the end of the first quarter. WayneStateUniversity is putting together a portion of the site that will measure the intrinsic value of culture.

"We will aggregate at the state level and then every community and every cultural venue that is participating will be able to pull out data for their local use. Or if Grand Rapids is involved with Holland or Muskegon, they will be able to aggregate for that region. It will give us some new marketing opportunities to sell our product, wherever it is," he said.

Anderson said HAL took on this assignment because the department believes that art and cultural groups are already making a significant contribution to the state's economy — valued at $2.5 billion annually — and to local economies throughout Michigan. He said if these groups acted strategically by repositioning their resources, they could have a greater impact on what many economists are calling the new economy.

"We're transforming from an older industrial economy to a new economy that everybody seems to talk about in these terms — and that is a greater emphasis on technology, a greater emphasis on innovation, a great emphasis on creative enterprise," said Anderson.

"If that's true, which I believe it is, then our sector has to have a more important role. So it is truly a repositioning we hope our sector achieves. So far the response has been terrific, overwhelmingly saying, 'Yes, we can do more.'"

Anderson said another reason why HAL initiated this mission was to show non-believers that art and cultural groups do positively contribute to the economy. When the report from the city's new economy task force was unveiled at a recent city commission meeting, there weren't any doubters in the crowd about the value both have in Grand Rapids

"We believe the arts are an important part of the local economy," said Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

Opera Grand Rapids Executive Director John Peter Jeffries reported that the four arts tenants in

DeVos Place
— Grand Rapids Symphony, Grand Rapids Ballet Company, Broadway Theatre Guild and Opera Grand Rapids — add over $4 million to the local economy annually.

Jeffries explained that about 79,000 patrons attend the 76 performances put on by the hall's arts groups each year, and each attendee spends an average of $53 for a total annual impact of just under $4.2 million.

"The arts are a key driver of the city's economy," said Jeffries.

The city has targeted arts and entertainment as a sector for growth in the new economy.

Anderson said Gov. Jennifer Granholm supports the HAL effort wholeheartedly and sees the endeavor as another good way to diversify the state's economy. But to achieve that mark, HAL has to show it increases the tax base, creates jobs and improves the quality of life in the state.

Before those results can even be measured, though, investments have to be made in the arts and in cultural attractions. And exactly how much will be invested will likely be decided by just one factor: the potential for return on investment.

"If I'm going to be a champion and our sector is going to say we have an important role to play, then it's going to require some investment in culture and its resources. Well, what's the return?" asked Anderson. "If we can't, like business, show what the return is, why would you invest in it? In economic development, you've got to measure results."    

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