Art Can Jump Start the State’s Sagging Economy

Published in the Pawtucket Times, February 22, 2013

Rhode Island may be known as the nation’s littlest State. But if Governor Lincoln D. Chafee, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and House Speaker Gordon D. Fox have their way, the Ocean State may be called the “State of the Arts.”

Even with the occurrence of a massive blizzard just two days before the February 11th Art Charrette, 110 art supporters (including 10 Senators), from government, the business community, academia and the nonprofit sector, did not let huge snow piles in some spots up to two feet high keep them off the streets. They traveled to Fidelity Investments headquarters in Smithfield to tell top State elected officials how art and creativity can rev up Rhode Island’s sputtering economic engine.

Fidelity Investment’s 500-acre campus off Route 7 features three buildings, including a 577,000-square-foot office building. It was the perfect place to talk seriously about art. Carol Warner, who has served as Fidelity’s Art Curator for more than 30 years, says her company has purchased over 1,200 pieces of art from 433 Rhode Island artists. The collection is showcased throughout the campus and is installed on the surrounding grounds. Warner enthused that the art “both enhances the work space and invigorates its employees,” in her comments to the gathered legislative and arts and cultural leadership attendees.

During her opening remarks Warner noted that Fidelity Investments supports local artists in Rhode Island and wherever they have a presence at nine regional campuses and 180 investment centers throughout the nation.

The Political Stars Align for Arts

Chafee, whose demonstration program put murals on four visible highway retaining walls and abutments along Interstate 95, noted that staggering statistics “underscore the plain fact that the arts are clearly one of Rhode Island’s premier [economic] assets.” He cited a New England Foundation for the Arts study, published last fall that found that 2009 direct and indirect spending by the non-profit arts sector totaled $673 million and supported nearly 8,000 jobs.

According to the Governor, just last year, a Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts study found over 12,000 Rhode Island jobs were created in both the State’s private and nonprofit art sectors. The economic impact in Providence alone was greater than that of Delaware, Hawaii, South Dakota and New Hampshire…states with larger populations, he said.

“The arts and culture are also deeply intertwined with our state’s appeal as a tourism destination. They make Rhode Island a place where people want to spend time and – quite frankly – spend money,” added Chafee, whose proposed 2014 budget provides additional funding for the State’s Tourism Division.

“Rhode Island’s creative sector encompasses over 3,248 arts-related businesses and jobs that employ more than 13,000 individuals,” stated Paiva Weed, who spear headed the efforts to organize this idea gathering session. “Despite the lingering effects of the recession on most sectors of the economy, the creative sector in Rhode Island added 770 jobs and enjoyed a 16 percent growth between 2011 and 2012.”

Fox acknowledged the fact that Rhode Island needs to play to its strength in the arts, an observation that he garnered from a speaker at a recently held economic development workshop at Rhode Island College.

Don’t expect the final report generated from the Art Charrette to sit on a State bureaucrat’s dusty shelf. Fox, whose chamber initially hammers out the State’s budget, asserted that he will work closely with the Senate and Governor to review the final suggestions to ensure that arts are a key component of Rhode Island’s state’s economic turnaround.

For Executive Director Randy Rosenbaum, who has led the State’s Council for the Arts for 18 years, the gathering was a “pinch me” moment. For years his mantra has been “the arts are important for the economic vitality of Rhode Island.” With Chafee’s opening affirmation that Paiva Weed and Fox are “unified” in their belief that the arts are key to economic growth in Rhode Island, the State’s Arts Czar saw all the planets in alignment for bringing his “arts and economic vitality” mantra closer to a political reality.

RISD President John Maeda came bringing his greetings, too. Maeda, a designer, computer scientist, academic and author, took the opportunity to announce the February 14th, launching of STEM to STEAM, a new RISD-led initiative to add Art and Design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Co-chaired by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), the bipartisan caucus focuses on furthering the incorporation of art and design into STEM education for American students. The new Congressional Caucus also includes Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Jim Langevin (D-RI).

Neil Steinberg, President of Rhode Island Foundation, views arts as a “twofer” with the jobs that the sector creates and the quality of life for the people who come here and for those who stay. He notes that his group, one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation and the only community foundation serving the Ocean State, is committed to building the arts sector,

Break Out Session Generates Ideas

With the larger group split into three discussion groups, more than 85 suggestions were compiled by the Art Charrette organizers.

One suggestion was to create a branding campaign to establish an art identity for Rhode Island. It was recommended that state policy makers make the most of the State’s small size and high density of artists and art groups. Visual branding of arts districts along with art trails with eating establishments would promote incredible art work and great restaurants.

It was noted that the State is already known as a design State. Given the presence of RISD and other education institutions, Rhode Island is in a position to become a leader in the nation’s design community. The State might easily become a workshop for the arts and industry.

Strategically use the State’s marketing budget for arts branding and to promote the tax free purchase of one-of-a-kind art in the certified Arts Districts throughout the Ocean State.

It was suggested that all municipalities incorporate the arts in their Economic Development Comprehensive Plan. All Cities and Towns should have an arts advocate who specifically serves as the person responsible for economic development activities.

Use the State’s taxing and bonding authority to advance the arts in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has nine legislatively created arts districts. Expand this tax policy to every city and town.

Also, better data must be collected. One recommendation called for the compiling of the true economic impact that includes not just data from restaurants, but from hotels, parking, art and entertainment activities, too.

Next Steps…

For this columnist: For more than 14 years I have seen the arts revitalize Pawtucket’s stagnant economy, bringing new life to its mills and tax dollars into the City’s coffers. Yes, redeveloped mills increase property values that bring in more property tax dollars to run a cash strapped city.

It is clear from last week’s Arts Charrette, the state’s political leadership now see the arts as a key sector in bringing dollars to the State’s coffers by attracting more tourists and convention business. Leadership must now sift through the dozens of suggestions and craft a comprehensive arts policy to be funded in Rhode Island’s 2014 Budget. If lawmakers walk their talk, Rhode Island truly will become the nation’s Art State, where artists make a living with their creative talents and Rhode Island becomes the newly emerging renaissance State.

For a detailing of Art Charrette suggestions, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMx45FXkVEs&list=UUMCPC8hUqIQQeq107tm5VAQ

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He promotes the arts by serving as Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer.

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