Art Can Save the World

Or At Least a City or Two

In follow up to yesterdays post on spending money to make money….

In this new economy, with cutbacks everywhere – art can and always has been an economic stimulus. Think not? Look at Grand Rapids, New York Mills, Phoenix, Baltimore, and Paducah. Each of these cities created art programs to stimulate economic development, foundation grants, bring people back to struggling neighborhoods and change the image of their city.

In Grand Rapids, ArtPrize includes more than 1,200 artists. The festival is open to the public and runs through October 10. Last year was the first and an estimated 200,000 people walked around downtown Grand Rapids to view and vote on the art they liked best. The estimated return on investment or economic impact on Grand Rapids – $3-$5 million according to Michigan Grand Valley State University. This year, registration to vote on the art and student art group participation has doubled. Already restaurants are bars are seeing 20%-40% increase in sales over last year.

ArtPrize utilizes crowd sourcing further involving their audience. Attendees can vote on the art they like best using their cell phones. Computers tally the votes and update results in real time so visitors can track their favorites. Why vote? Because there is serious prize money involved! Rick DeVos, web entrepreneur and an heir to the Amway business, is the brains behind ArtPrize. His family foundation donated the prize money of $449,000. While the money brings the artist, the larger impact is to enhance the image of Grand Rapids. Last year, Ran Ortner, an artist from Brooklyn, won the top prize of $250,000. Prior to winning, Ran was the typical “starving artist.” ArtPrize gave him and his work the exposure he needed and now receives inquiries about his work.

In 1991, New York Mills Minnesota, population 1,000, invested $35,000 to rehab and create an arts and culture center in an old building downtown. Within five years, 17 new businesses had opened, employing more than 200 people!

Over one weekend, Baltimore’s ArtScape includes visual and performing arts city-wide. In 2009, more than 350,000 people generated approximately $26 million according to Forward Analytics. They created the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts to manage ArtScape and other city art programs.

The National Endowment for the Arts has not missed this opportunity either. They have requested $5 million, a pittance, to support the Our Town program. The money would encourage and support local governments to plan art districts, map cultural assets and launch projects like ArtPrize and ArtScape.

This work is all about how and where we choose to invest the limited resources we have. It’s all about strategies to determine the impact we can have. We can’t settle for, “We can’t afford to fund the arts anymore.” We can’t let our cities crumble beneath our feet. We need to find ideas and solutions. INVEST in those ideas – Try, fail and try again. When we create strategies, in this new economy, we can engage individuals, governments and foundations to support programs with impact. These programs had impact on many levels – for the cities, their merchants, the artists, the public.

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