NASAA Notes: April 2009


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Bruce Richardson

April issue
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April 9, 2009

Guest Chair's Column

I was excited to see the Wyoming Arts Council get a headline on the front page of The Casper Star-Tribune, our one statewide newspaper, but the topic—implied astonishment at the arts being included in a jobs bill—stimulated me to try to get out in front of the issue. This is the right time to push on arts and jobs and encourage our elected officials to see the opportunities here. Jobs and arts and arts-based community development are a major part of the Wyoming Arts Council’s strategic plan, and were already the subject of a statewide arts summit, a new grant program, a new staff position and a lot of activity and partnership efforts around the state. There is also a chance to push some promising partnerships with the Wyoming Business Council and other economic development organizations who can help with a second arts summit, this fall in Jackson, on local efforts to revitalize communities through the arts.

Advocating for the Wyoming Arts Council is a clear obligation for the council chair and I have looked for ways to do this. As independent citizens appointed by the governor because of our knowledge of and interest in the arts, we council members certainly have the capability and authority to speak out on arts policy. This is especially important in small states, such as Wyoming, but I think in all states the ideas of the chair of the arts council have standing and significance. And we can make use of the member materials on arts advocacy provided by NASAA, as I did in my response, below (edited for April 2009 Notes), to the Star-Tribune article.

People tend to think of art as odd and special, a separate realm of elevated, difficult and unusual activities done by talented but eccentric individuals. People remember Beethoven’s genius and bad temper and Vincent Van Gogh’s ear-chopping, and think of starving writers not paying the rent (as in the musical Rent). In fact, most art workers are pretty regular people. They take and sell photos, repair instruments, plan buildings, design Web sites, make and sell jewelry, build handcrafted furniture, teach guitar, sculpt antlers into beautiful objects and sell them over the Web, frame pictures, play Mexican dance music at your wedding, do leathercraft, sell paintings in a downtown gallery and design your building. All of these are businesses in Wyoming. The owners rent or own property, buy supplies, pay insurance and taxes, pay salaries, buy groceries and furniture, and participate in the local economy, just as do the owners and employees of manufacturing companies or coal companies.

So the arts portion of the stimulus bill makes good sense. The grants that will go out in Wyoming must be used to preserve significant jobs in nonprofit arts organizations facing cutbacks. As reported in The Casper Journal, arts organizations such as the Wyoming Symphony and Nicolaysen Art Museum have suffered from decreases in their endowments, donations and fundraising. In the performing arts, a canceled concert is similar to a layoff. Musicians lose work and money, the audience loses a program, and the organization loses the ticket and sponsorship income. The small stimulus allotments contemplated by the Wyoming Arts Council will be out there fast and function as a short-term bridge to preserve jobs in the arts. The program will not remove all the threats to jobs, but it is timely, targeted and temporary.

Some may be surprised how many people in Wyoming make their living from the arts. In Sheridan there are 1,123 people (5.8% of the labor force) working in the creative, arts-based economy, according to a recent, very careful study, “Tradition, Expression, and Recognition: Creative Opportunities in the New West.” The authors get their data from on-the-ground counts that find the self-employed and others who are not listed on the standard sources, including a cluster of leather and saddle artisans. The study is of significance to the whole state and to our efforts to increase economic diversity and attract top creative talent. There is much here already that we can nurture.

According to the study, the arts economy in Arkansas was the state’s third largest employer, fifth largest in Colorado, and in Montana there were more people working in the arts than in the energy industry. This matches national trends. It’s no surprise, then, that arts councils are often part of state offices of economic development, as is the case in Louisiana and Connecticut, and that many towns actively recruit artists and promote themselves as arts destinations. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a decaying manufacturing city, has made a huge comeback by stressing music, pottery and food. Each night the downtown swarms with young shoppers and music lovers having a good time and spending money.

We know that appealing towns have lots of arts and that arts draw people and businesses. We also know that arts are fun, that they give pleasure and meaning, that strong art lifts the soul and unclutters the mind. We also know that the arts stimulate creativity and train excellent workers. See The National Governors Association report “The Impact of Arts Education on Workforce Preparation,” and their recent, timely and well-written Arts & the Economy: Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development. We know that art museums and concert halls are key parts of attractive communities that draw businesses. So let’s develop that downtown gallery in Rawlins, turn an unused building into a theater in Dubois, build the Casper Civic Auditorium, and work on upstairs housing for artists in downtown Sheridan. But let’s not forget that the arts are already diversifying Wyoming’s economy.

Bruce Richardson is a NASAA board member. You can reach him at or 307-268-2393.

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