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The state of the arts is strong
New study shows local vitality
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We’ll have more on this in the months to come, but one of the more exciting bits of news to happen during this slower time of year is the unveiling of the latest Americans for the Arts “Arts & Economic Prosperity” survey, the third the organization has done.

In 2005, Americans for the Arts issued a call for participants in the study, which would focus on the economic impact of nonprofit cultural groups (i.e., not Hollywood). Eventually 156 communities from all 50 states and the District of Columbia would take part in the survey, including Savannah. Locally, 22 area non-profits participated in the study.

I suspect the vast majority of Connect Savannah readers don’t need to be sold on the idea that arts and culture are vital, non-negotiable aspects of what makes a city important and livable. This paper is basically the cultural journal of the community, and our readership will tend to self-select on the basis of arts being important to their lives.

That said, I’m not sure everyone fully realizes just how important the arts are to Savannah’s economy in addition to its quality of life. While I tire of the relentless emphasis these days on profitability as an index of quality -- nowhere more visible than with movies, where critics now routinely begin reviews by commenting on how much money (or how little) a film has made -- no arts advocate should be unaware of the enormous positive economic impact the arts can have on any community, large or small.

Growing up in Savannah, I was always told this was a blue-collar community, completely dependent on the ports and the military for jobs. Back in the day, arts in Savannah were considered a fringe element, more to be tolerated than cultivated, the province of dabblers and dilettantes rather than anything, you know, serious.

But as we’ve seen in the post 9/11 era, the military is no safe guarantor of a region’s economic security. Just ask small business owners in Hinesville how they’ve done since much of the town’s population has been shipped out to Iraq for multiple tours.

Indeed -- if I may indulge in sacrilege for a moment -- I wonder if the closing of Ft. Stewart and/or Hunter Army Airfield at some future time would really be the unqualified disaster locals assume? Charlestonians feared imminent economic collapse when the Navy Yard was closed a decade ago, but a segment of that site, no longer off-limits to artists, entrepreneurs and consumers, is now another bright spot in Charleston’s continuing renaissance.

Another factor with military spending is how little return on the taxpayer dollar it provides. The vast bulk of America’s expensive high-tech arsenal sits unused, even now. Every military training flight burns thousands of gallons of fuel off the market, making us even more dependent on Middle East oil and the hostile governments that own it.

Freedom isn’t free, indeed.

The truth is, if it were a business the military would be considered a disastrous downward spiral of sunk costs. (One of its upsides -- unintentional, I’m sure -- is the fact that military bases are now some of the best wildlife preserves in the country.)

Port activity is a different animal entirely. Along with agriculture, sea trade virtually defines civilization, and certainly no one recommends closing the port of Savannah, which has been a seaport since its inception.

However, the exponential expansion of the Georgia Ports Authority over the years has come at a steep cost in destruction of local wetlands, habitat loss, riverbank erosion and saline intrusion.

And don’t forget the air pollution caused by the massive truck traffic into and out of GPA’s sprawling west Chatham facilities, or the impact of manufacturing jobs lost to the Asian companies that make nearly all the goods the port of Savannah brings in.

While it never says so in the press releases, any honest accounting of GPA’s economic impact would count these increased environmental, health care and economic costs as offsets, negative factors to be subtracted from the community’s bottom line.

But the arts are different. They don’t give you lung cancer, they don’t declare eminent domain, they can’t be outsourced, they’re virtually recession-proof, they don’t leave town when there’s a war on, and you can never have too much of them.

In short, the arts are basically a job-creation perpetual motion machine with virtually zero capital costs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’d even go one step further and say the arts are a license to print money.

Exactly how important are the arts to Savannah’s economy? And the survey says:

• Local arts organizations spent about $22 million during 2005, according to data from “Arts & Economic Prosperity III.” Their audiences spent almost $25 million.

• That means $46,632,526 was spent by local cultural groups and their audiences during 2005, resulting in 1,606 full-time equivalent jobs here.

• The above activity generated $4.8 million in local and state tax revenue. Remember, that’s basically free money, because the arts require so little capital investment. In fact, the ratio of government arts spending versus revenue is an amazing 7-1. Now that’s return on your taxpayer dollar!

OK, but as we all know, numbers are meaningless without context. The key question is: How do the above stats compare to other cities Savannah’s size?

And the survey says:

• The median 2005 impact of the arts in other U.S. cities our size was about $28 million. That means that the arts in Savannah generate almost fifty percent more money than the typical U.S. market our size. So much for the old military-and-the-port paradigm!

Most remarkable to me -- and in my opinion the real news of the study -- is the enormous increase in the rate of growth of the arts as a sector of the economy.

Nationally, nonprofit arts’ economic impact has grown 24 percent since 2000. A stock is considered an outrageous success if it gains value half that fast.

Perhaps more importantly to local business owners, event-related spending by arts audiences increased at an even greater rate of 28 percent.

The total numbers still pale in comparison with the money spent on the cheap Chinese consumer goods that flood GPA’s berths, but remember most of that money goes straight to Target’s and Wal-Mart’s headquarters.

And the total numbers certainly pale in comparison with the billions the military generates, courtesy of you the taxpayer. But most of that money ends up in Iraq.

Spending by and on the arts, however, stays almost completely within our community, and its value is unassailable, transcending politics and personalities.

Like I said, we’ll be doing more reporting on this in issues to come. Until then, see the full results of the survey yourself at:

And as always you can e-mail me at: