Art has strong impact on community

Brian Paris talks with his friend Farzo Mirzai, both of Champaign, underneath original artwork at Cafe Kopi in Champaign on Wednesday afternoon. The two men were ditching work for hot chocolate. Amelia Moore

By Christine Peluso

In 2002, Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class” became a bestseller. In the book, Florida chronicles the impact of creativity on a community and shows how a “creative class” can transform a community into a thriving, vibrant place. Since his success, there has been a great deal of focus on how a creative class can help bring growth to stagnant communities. How do cities and towns attract artists and musicians? How do cities foster and encourage growth in the arts? Beyond all of the attention and hype, why is a creative class essential for economic growth?

The economic impact of the arts is undeniable. The nonprofit arts industry nationally generates $134 billion in economic activity annually, according to a 2002 Arts and Economic Prosperity Study done by the organization Americans for the Arts. It also supports the equivalent of 4.85 million full-time jobs. The nonprofit arts industry in Illinois provides more than 24,000 jobs in the state and has an annual economic impact of $2 billion. Approximately 3.2 to 3.7 million tourists visit Illinois specifically to attend arts activities annually. In Champaign County alone, the arts account for more than $33.7 million in economic activity and 1,400 jobs, according to a study done by the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation in 2002.

“There are so many ways the arts impact a community in addition to its economic impact. But, it’s become popular to use arts to reinvigorate growth, and there’s a reason for that. It works,” said Lisa May Simpson, director of the Illinois Arts Alliance Program.

Spending associated with the arts is a completely different economic factor that can’t even be calculated. Commercial arts venues, individual artists and audience spending associated with arts attendance make the economic impact even greater.

The arts help attract a creative workforce as well, Jennifer Armstrong, executive director of 40 North/88 West, the Champaign County Arts, Culture & Entertainment Council said.

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    An incredible number of talented people working in creative industries; artists, designers, performers, technicians, directors, architects, developers, chefs and other members of the creative workforce are choosing to make Champaign-Urbana their home, she said. They’re coming from all over and making an impact locally as well as nationally and internationally, she said.

    “What they all have in common is an ability to make our community more vibrant an economically robust,” Armstrong said.

    When artists get paid for work, many of those dollars will be cycled right back into the community, Armstrong said. If artists can make a living in our community, they are more likely to stay and live here, she said.

    Artists have long been known to invest in property and renovate it. They can help transform dilapidated areas into vibrant, chic places to live. By using their creative energies to renovate property, artists increase their property value and their neighbors’ property value, Armstrong said.

    “Artists have been known to completely turn neighborhoods around from highly run down and hideous to hip and highly desirable places to live,” she said. “They take what is affordable and turn it into masterpieces.”

    Artists also help separate a community from others through innovation.

    “Innovation comes from creativity,” Armstrong said. “Communities without a high level of creative activity remain stagnant. Growth comes from creative activity. High levels of arts and entertainment draw residents, tourists, businesses and students. More people, more money, more development.”

    Quality of life also improves when there is a healthy, thriving arts community, Armstrong said.

    “Champaign County boasts a great breadth and depth of arts, culture and entertainment,” she said.

    Armstrong cited fine art, rock n’ roll, ethnic and folk art, poetry, DJ spinning, architecture and hip-hop all as forms of art in the community that can be stimulating and exciting. Beyond the traditionally notable things about Champaign, the University of Illinois, Parkland College, the affordable cost of living, Champaign is fun, she said.

    Because a creative class means so many things to a community, Armstrong, along with many others work to stimulate growth in the arts community. 40 North/88 West’s mission says the organization “is dedicated to cultivating a vibrant and thriving environment for the arts, culture and entertainment stimulating Champaign County’s growth and enriching the quality of life for everyone.”

    Armstrong feels the 40 North/88 West organization in unique because it is not a traditional arts council and is not elitist.

    “It embraces all forms of arts, culture and entertainment, symphony, hip hop, pottery, weaving, graphic design and everything in between,” Armstrong said.

    40 North/88 West encourages growth of the art community most notably through the Boneyard Arts Festival. The Boneyard Arts Festival is an annual event that brings the art community together with the business community. It brings visual and performing artists into both traditional and non-traditional venues and creates a surge of economic activity in and around those participating areas, Armstrong said.

    “It showcases the wealth of talent and brings the arts and business communities together for a mutually beneficial event,” she said.

    By putting art in non-traditional venues such as offices, restaurants and coffee houses it creates publicity, foot traffic and sale for both the artist and the venue.

    “It also gives residents a fun and interesting events to attend, and it also draws tourists and media attention to our community, helping with our community perception and economic growth,” Armstrong said.

    The Boneyard Arts Festival is great because it uses atypical venues, Karen Hewitt, Krannert Art Museum Deputy director and board member of 40 North/88 West, said.

    Jennifer Southlynn, a local artist, board member of 40 North/88 West and editor of The Pamphlet, helped start 40 North/88 West and the Boneyard Arts Festival. She said the mission of 40 North/88 West is to bring together the arts community and local businesses.

    “We need to teach the community that artists are really valuable,” Southlynn said.

    Southlynn helped with a survey showing the economic impact of arts in the county with actual numbers.

    “It blew everyone away,” she said. “That was the beginning of discussions between businessmen and artist. The Boneyard Arts Festival represents the marriage of the two.”

    From the Boneyard Arts Festival’s conception about six years ago to now, the growth has been astronomical. It started with 13 art venues, now it’s about 95.

    “It gets bigger and bigger every year,” she said. “People come for the festival and flood these businesses.”

    The arts influence economics by sheer proximity as well.

    “Definitely the art theatre has played a significant role in the economics of downtown,” Colleen Cook, manager at Boardman’s Art Theatre, said.

    People come for a movie and then stay for drinks or dinner, she said. Cook thinks an art theatre is great for downtown areas because it gives people something to do and something to look forward to.

    “We pride ourselves on being the only art theatre in downtown,” Cook said. “We truly think of films as an art form and we treat it as such. And that’s a rarity these days.”

    Paul West, co-owner of Caf‚ Kopi, thinks arts are essential because they attract young people.

    “Young people are attracted to nightlife,” he said.

    West feels the arts could be emphasized more. Most students leave the community after they finish their schooling at the University, unlike Ann-Arbor, MI or Madison, WI, he said. West thinks Champaign is a great community, but many people not familiar with the community, don’t realize it. Champaign has tons of restaurants and bars, he said.

    “There’s everything here that you could do in a mid-size city,” West said. “You just have to look for it.”

    West thinks maybe more promotion of events in the area would engage more people in the community.

    “Promotion would spark interest,” he said. “People would be less prone to go home and just turn on the TV.”

    Michael Schwegmann, local artists, Boneyard Pottery owner and Champaign Community Arts Group Chair, also thinks arts are needed to bring the community together.

    “This town is strange,” he said. “People leave a lot. The nature of this town is very transient. A lot of people don’t get involved. It’s very unfortunate. Art gives people a chance to get more engaged in a community.

    Schwegmann says community, as a whole these days, needs forums such as art to bring people together.

    “Community of this culture is very fragmented,” he said. “One thing that art can do is bring people together. It gets people to look at their lives and their community. Art … gets people to ask questions. It could be about a certain piece. It could be about a relationship. It could be about a community. Good art will make people think. It’s community building. There’s a human interaction, art is a facilitation.”

    Southlynn says the community is becoming more and more involved in the arts. More and more people are collecting art in the community, she said. In the past 10 years, so many new spaces have opened. Verde, Cinema Gallery and the Springer Cultural Center are just three examples in the area.

    Lisa Meid, president of the Downtown Association Board, said the community has done a great job of embracing the arts.

    “We’ve had a great response from the community,” she said. “There’s a lot of goodwill directed towards the creativity. It’s changing the face of the community. It’s an interesting time.”

    Though Southlynn is happy with the improvements in the community, she would like to see more.

    “Now that we’ve penetrated the establishment it’s a whole new ballgame,” she said.

    Artists need grassroots changes, she said, they’re more empowering. Southlynn would also like to see more appreciation for artists. Artists shouldn’t just donate work to be seen as contributing to a community. Southlynn thinks the Artists Against AIDS exhibit is a great example of this point because the artists get to decide how much of the profit they want to donate. Artists shouldn’t be obligated to just donate pieces, Southlynn said.

    “We’re trying to make an effort to re-educate people,” she said.