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Arts Make Dollars and Sense

We Americans treat visual and performing arts as nice-to-haves – not necessities. The fire department is a necessity.

If the town burns to rubble because there’s no fire department, tens of thousands of people will be homeless, out of work, and in dire physical peril. In other words, we’ll face a catastrophic social crisis. Avoiding that is both moral and economically sensible.

So if it costs X to maintain a properly functioning fire department, then we ante up X – pay taxes – to do it. But not all calculations of community value are so crystal clear. Let’s consider one close to home: the Northside of Santa Clara.

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If the City hadn’t made big Northside infrastructure investments in the 1970s, nothing dire would have happened immediately. In fact, the city would have saved a few short-term bucks.

But without those investments we wouldn’t now have a convention center drawing about 85,000 people to the city every year, fast-growing tech companies like InfoBlox making their headquarters here, and the San Francisco 49ers building a $1 billion stadium here.

These aren’t about city feel-goodism. Each delivers essential revenue – retail and, more importantly, business-to-business sales tax – paying for city services such as the fire department. Residential property taxes – the city gets about 10 cents on each dollar – simply don’t come anywhere close to paying for vital services. Those infrastructure investments are essential to our well being as a community.

The need for community arts investment isn‘t so easy to see because we don’t usually think of arts in the same nuts-and-bolts economic terms that we do stadiums, convention centers, and neighborhood redevelopment. But someone does do that kind of calculation. And the results should make Santa Clarans sit up and take notice, because it‘s all about us.

Consider the results of a new report by arts advocacy and education nonprofit Americans for the Arts (www.artsusa.org), “Arts & Economic Prosperity: The Economic Impact of Non-profit Arts and Cultural Organizations and Their Audiences in Santa Clara County CA.”

Americans for the Arts is hardly a touchy-feely operation. Founded in 1967 by David Rockefeller, it’s chaired by Arbitron CEO William Kerr – a guy who might be presumed to know a thing or two about the arts and entertainment business.

The study’s message, quite simply, is: Arts mean business. Where the money is, is in becoming an arts destination.

Arts and culture organizations are resilient and entrepreneurial. They employ people locally, purchase goods and services from within the community, and market and promote their regions.

Audience spending at arts and cultural events pumps money into local economies. Arts patrons pay for parking, buy event-related souvenirs, eat dinner at a restaurant, shop in local retail stores, and have dessert on the way home. Based on about 150,000 surveys of audience members, people attending arts events spend about $25 each per event, beyond the cost of admission.

Nonprofit arts and culture generates $167 million in economic activity — $105.4 million by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and an additional $62 million in event-related audience spending. This supports 4,224 full-time jobs, generates $97.4 million in household income, and delivers $12.3 million in local and state revenue.

Cultural tourists boost economic activity. The research says that arts tourists stay longer and spend more. In Santa Clara County, 32 percent of arts audiences live outside the county, and spend twice what county residents do.

Still doubt that arts and culture pay concrete dividends? Rome’s cultural investments – made from 500 to 2,000 years ago – draw about 7 to 10 million tourists a year. Closer to home, Ashland, Oregon – synonymous with its annual Shakespeare theater festival – garners $2 million annually in hotel taxes and $2.2 million from its food and beverage tax. That Shakespeare festival creates 500 jobs – nearly 6 percent of the city’s jobs.

But there’s a catch. If we want to attract folks to an arts destination, we need a…destination. And quite frankly, in Santa Clara there’s no “there” there. There’s no place in Santa Clara that says “a night out.”

If Santa Clara is going to develop these opportunities for economic growth, the city needs an entertainment destination for it to happen in – just as the convention center is a destination that brings people into the city for business conferences and events.

Another lesson that the Ashlands and Tanglewoods of the country teach us is that a successful arts destination must be a unique destination – not just a “me-too” venue hosting traveling productions of blockbuster commercial shows.

In Santa Clara we’ve talked about an entertainment district for nearly half a century. Isn’t it time to stop talking and start doing?

Full disclosure: Carolyn Schuk is Founder and CEO of the Santa Clara Performing Arts Foundation.

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