Financial challenges experienced by Nevada residents are mirrored by Nevada arts and culture organizations. During the economic downturn Nevada is still working to bounce back from, some Nevada arts organizations have thrived, some have come into being and some have closed their doors.
While going through a recession, the arts may seem like a luxury Nevadans can’t afford. Families are struggling to make ends meet and businesses are struggling to keep their doors open. The current economic outlook would seem to suggest the arts need to wait for happier economic times.
But arts and culture organizations contribute to their communities in ways that may not be readily apparent. First, they bring people together – the arts create a community gathering place and a way to escape economic realities.
The arts are also an economic driver, both in general terms – numbers of workforce employed, money brought into communities – and in terms of bringing people into downtown areas and nearby businesses.
The Economics of Art
A report from Americans for the Arts compiled in 2007 (using 2005 numbers), on the national scale arts and culture organizations were responsible for 5.7 million full-time jobs and $9.1 billion in state government tax revenues. Overall, the industry generated $166.2 billion split between spending by the organizations and by audiences choosing to spend their discretionary dollars on the arts. (An updated Arts & Economic Prosperity report will be released next month).
Revenue generated by arts events isn’t from ticket sales alone. The arts play into a community’s economy through the organization’s overhead and expenditures, through bringing in performers who increase room nights in local hotels, and through increasing visitors to the community’s arts’ district. Americans for the Arts collected data from 94,478 individuals attending arts events and found in addition to admission to events, the average visitor spent another $27 which generated $103.1 billion in additional revenue for merchants in the arts’ districts.
Because of increased foot traffic and the number of visitors arts groups can attract to a city’s downtown or arts’ district, the arts are frequently used as an economic development tool.
In 1996 the City of Reno put together the festival celebrating its 17th anniversary this year and Artown was born.
“[The City] wanted to use arts and culture as a tool to see if they could bring people back downtown and revise the downtown region that was dying,” said Beth MacMillan, executive director, Artown. “And yes, it’s an economic indicator in a wacky way.”
An economic indicator that’s survived the recession fairly well. Economically the community has taken ownership of the festival, Macmillan said, and when monetary shortfalls have threatened, individual donors have stepped up. Encore events at other times of the year feed the festival before it ever opens.
In addition to direct financial considerations, Artown has continued to draw residents and visitors to downtown Reno. Attendance at events remains stable and venues continue to be maxed out.
The arts will come into play again as Northern Nevada transitions from a gambling Mecca to a four-season resort destination. “We’ve undersold this destination in terms of sophistication,” said Christopher Baum, president and CEO, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor’s Authority. The intent now is to include Reno’s arts scene in the mix when meeting with convention organizers. “The overall arts scene is a mix of who we are,” Baum said.
Visitors already access Northern Nevada’s arts’ scene – Nevada Museum of Art in Reno regularly draws visitors from Portland and Las Vegas. “Probably about a third of our visitors come from out of market,” said David Walker, executive director, CEO.
In March, during theoretical recovery from one of the most severe economic recessions, The Smith Center came (TSC) to life in Las Vegas. A campus facility located on five acres in downtown Las Vegas, the public/private partnership total project value is $470 million, including $245 million in hard construction costs. The City provided land, infrastructure, environmental cleanup, and parking through a bond measure. Though the Center has only been open since March, already the area around it is seeing a return of foot traffic.
Arts performances aren’t just about people coming to the arts’ district for the show. People attending arts events are likely to stop for a drink before the show or dinner after, or to shop in nearby retail shops. Just having an arts venue in a neighborhood can increase the number of people on the street, making a neighborhood feel alive again.
“It’s a redevelopment tool,” said Myron Martin, CEO. “The arts help recruit businesses to the community. The arts help recruit companies that might want to build or remodel in downtown. The performing arts historically have created tools for economic development and organizations such as Nevada Development Authority which utilizes them when trying to recruit businesses to move here.”
Redevelop, Reuse, Rehabilitate
The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement – aka, The Mob Museum – opened in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day in a building gifted from the federal government to the city provided it was rehabilitated and used for a cultural purpose.
“Organized crime played a central role in the history of our own city and state,” said former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman who is on the Board of Directors for the museum. “There’s no denying it’s a part of our heritage. As such, there is no better place than Las Vegas to house a museum on this topic. Created by a world-class team known for other quality museums, The Mob Museum is the real deal. Plus, it’s housed in the ultimate artifact – one of the most historic buildings in Las Vegas and the very courtroom where the Kefauver hearings were held in 1950.”
“It was immediately apparent it needed to be some kind of museum,” said Jonathan Ullman, executive director of the Mob Museum. The building was entered into service in 1933 as a post office and later a courthouse and according to Ullman is one of the finest examples of depression era neoclassical architecture in the area. It’s also the courthouse where one of the 14 national Kefauver hearings to expose organized crime was held in 1950, which got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places and makes it perfect for its present incarnation.
The hope is that the Mob Museum, located at 300 Stewart Avenue, will bring visitors two blocks north of the Fremont Experience where some 15 million people visit annually – until recently there hasn’t been much past that to attract visitors. The City’s hoping to tap into visitors’ discretionary time and money.
The City put up its own money for the project. Thirty of the $42 million project was hard costs for rehabilitation and construction rather than costs to buy exhibitions. Of that, $21 million was redevelopment funds, said Ullman, and another $9 million came from a variety of federal, state and local grants, as well as grants for re-purposing a historic building. More than 200 people were hired during construction and construction funding was estimated to have a $62 million impact on the community.
“It’s no secret the public has long been fascinated with organized crime,” said Goodman. “From my personal experiences as the mob’s defense attorney, I was confident a museum that accurately told the whole story of organized crime and law enforcement would resonate with the public. The museum’s critical acclaim and strong visitation among both locals and tourists is already proving that to be true. As The Mob Museum’s original visionary, I couldn’t be more pleased with its early success.”
Downtown is already feeling the change. “You can see people on Stewart Street walking about where it was largely dormant before,” added Ullman.
Beyond the Urban
It’s not just cities that benefit from arts’ organizations. “In rural communities arts’ organizations have the same commitment to serve community and be active in keeping those places vital,” said Susan Boskoff, executive director, Nevada Arts Council (NAC). Because keeping the arts going requires a lot of time and energy, many nonprofits in geographically isolated areas partner up.
NAC’s Nevada Touring Initiative takes writers and exhibitions into under-served communities. Tumblewords puts writer in residence into communities. Both programs are threatened in fiscal year 2013 if NAC loses a proposed $60,000 to $70,000 from its budget.
Other arts’ organizations serving rural communities include Churchill Arts Council which has a well-rounded slate of arts events and exhibitions, Western Folklife Center in Elko produces the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and Yerington Theatre for the Arts presents performing arts, visual exhibitions, cultural heritage events and arts education workshops. Shooting the West at the Winnemucca Convention Center showcases Nevada photography, and the Wild Women Artists exhibit annually at Wilbur May Museum in Reno.
The Arts (organizations) For Arts’ Sake
The deep root traditional arts organizations in Nevada include Nevada Ballet Theatre, Las Vegas Philharmonic, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno Chamber Orchestra, Brewery Arts Center and a host of others.
Arts’ organizations that have made it through the recession and, in some cases thrived, have done so sometimes because nonprofits working in the arts are used to working with lean budgets in order to survive. Others have tightened their fiscal belts and held on.
Nevada Museum of Art has actually been growing. During the last couple years they’ve instituted a strategic plan to raise funds, and a quiet campaign to raise $20 million to grow their endowment and put in place a curator of education. They hired an experienced retail manager to run the gift shop and saw sales increase four-fold annually, and hired a special events person to facilitate renting the Museum for events, and started the Art + Environment to build a national profile around niche research initiative. But while membership renewals and attendance dipped in 2008 and 2009, revenue strategies combated the dip.
“I think that everyone has a certain level of discretionary income they will spend on the arts,” said Jeri Crawford, president and CEO, Las Vegas Philharmonic. “For us, we’re always looking for new ways to market.”
There are plenty of new ways too market. Maybe too many.
“Running a business is complex in good times,” said Boskoff. “When the economy plummets and during times of enormous change with technology and the way we do business, there’s so much to learn and discuss it’s terribly hard during the best of times.”
Which these aren’t. But technology is changing at the speed of light and audiences are changing along with it, looking for their entertainment on e-readers and YouTube more than in a bookstore or at the opera.
Nevada arts are still finding audiences. Crawford said the Philharmonic has been successful in increasing subscription sales over the last three and a half years, increasing annually by 15 to 20 percent, possibly a result of diversifying programming. Another change is the move to The Smith Center as one of the resident companies. The orchestra, now in its 14th season, played its first concert in TSC’s Reynolds Hall to a sold out house in March.
Another new Smith Center resident company is Nevada Ballet Theatre (NBT), celebrating its 40th year. Beth Barbre, executive director/CEO, hopes the move will help the organization attract a new audience. “We employ local artists, so we’re looking at this to hopefully bring more people downtown to see us.”
For resident companies the possibilities inherent in the move to TSC are offset by some continuing financial challenges that most arts’ organizations in Nevada today face: The need for funding and the need to find audiences.
Arts organizations face several challenges during a recession, said Boskoff. There’s a loss of support from charitable foundations that suddenly have to choose what to fund, there’s a loss of government support in the form of grant monies, people have less discretionary funds to spend on the arts and the demand for nonprofit services go up.
NBT is used to a lean budget and has run in the black the last two years while preparing for the move to TSC. A strong finance committee steering the ship helps.
“We’re in this business for the love of the art form,” said Barbre. “Basically we’re a perpetual startup as a nonprofit and every year have to hope to have a budget and come July first we start all over.” Still, NBT brings 12,000 people to Caesar’s Palace Paris Theatre’s 1,500 seats every December for the Nutcracker, during a two-week period traditionally slow for casinos.
“Great cities have great performing arts groups,” said Barbre. “We try as an arts’ organization to enrich people’s lives, bring beauty and hope and inspiration.”