Art and Commerce: the Economic Cornerstone

By Beacon Staff

Empty storefronts. Housing foreclosures. Skyrocketing gas prices. We are living with the constant reminder of economic uncertainty on a daily basis. Couple this with a geographic area that has yet to reach the critical mass needed to effectively sustain itself economically independent of transient consumers, and the following question must be raised, “What is driving the economic engine of the Flathead Valley?”

There are numerous answers to that question, some more obvious than others: real estate development, heavy industry, retail and the arts.

That’s right. You read correctly. The arts.

The nonprofit arts community is doing a lot more than you might realize.

Nonprofit arts organizations are charged with a very serious responsibility. Their duty isn’t just to provide a good time or a fun night out. They are responsible for enriching the souls of the communities they serve. They provide windows into the human condition, allowing us to better understand ourselves and each other. They are a vital part of our evolution as a culture.

While this service is great indeed, another question must be asked, “Is it possible for an organization whose mission is to enrich the souls of a people to also be a viable economic engine for its community?” Let’s see.

Our cultural institutions sit at the corner of Art and Commerce. The mission of a nonprofit arts organization cannot be realized and sustainability cannot be achieved if good business practices are not in place. Likewise, nonprofit arts organizations lose their relevance if they cease to honor their original altruistic missions.

We are finding that nonprofit arts companies who successfully live at that intersection of Art and Commerce provide another boon to the community: healthy economic impact.

Let’s take a look at an example of this economic impact. This summer, Alpine Theatre Project (ATP), the Flathead Valley’s nonprofit professional theatre, will employ more than 75 people for its operations, making it one of the larger employers in the valley during that time. All those employees will spend additional dollars on the many amenities that the valley has to offer, including food, retail and recreation. A ripple effect occurs, and we estimate the total impact of that ripple effect to be almost $600,000 in additional household income as a result of ATP’s expenditures. We also estimate an additional $300,000 in audience spending before, after, and during ATP’s productions. ATP will also generate an estimated $77,000 for the economy in the form of government revenue from permits, fees and taxes. When these numbers are added to ATP’s direct spending in the local economy for goods and services, the estimated economic impact registers at well over $1.5 million annually.

There are other, softer factors to consider as well. Arts companies provide a particular boon to the local tourism industry.

The demographics of tourism are changing. As our world gets smaller, people are learning more and more about other areas and other cultures. The number of “drive and camp” tourists is waning, and it is being replaced with legions of tourists who want to sample the local culture of an area. They want to see the art galleries, sample the local cuisine and take in the local entertainment. This demographic is commonly referred to as the “urban sophisticates” or “geo-tourists,” and they are fast becoming the largest section of tourists in the nation.

According to recent studies by the Tourism Industry of America, geo-tourists are willing to spend more time and more money in an area if they know that there are interesting cultural events to experience. This is the difference between one and three nights in a hotel, the difference between one and three days dining, recreating and shopping.

Arts companies provide the missing piece in Montana’s tourism puzzle. What better way to cap off an evening in the parks, on the rivers, or on the golf courses than seeing an inspiring play, or listening to a breathtaking symphony? One need only look at towns like Ashland, Ore., Cedar City, Utah, and even Bigfork to see how the arts can help drive the local economy.

So. Not only is it possible for arts organizations to drive economic growth, it is already happening.

In short, I urge you to frequent our local arts organizations. See a play. Listen to a concert. Take in a museum or gallery. Support your local arts organizations. They are helping support you.

Luke Walrath is Executive Director of the Alpine Theatre Project, a professional nonprofit theatre company in the Flathead Valley

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