President Calvin Coolidge famously said, “The chief business of the American people is business.”

While his sentiment is certainly as true now as it was when he first spoke it in 1925, it’s unlikely that Silent Cal would have foreseen that 80 years later the arts would emerge as one of the biggest of America’s big businesses.

Nationwide, $134 billion is spent on arts events each year. Locally, the arts are even more of a key component, with a single arts-oriented entity, the Savannah College of Art & Design, accounting for at least $256 million each year into the local economy.

“A lot of people don’t think the arts sector is really all that big,” says Eileen Baker, director of the city of Savannah’s Cultural Affairs Department.

“But all our museums, libraries, galleries, and all of our decorative stores, our schools and universities and even our churches are all participating in bringing a wealth of arts events to the community,” she says.

Baker, along with Lucas Theatre Director Ken Carter and the Savannah Music Festival’s Maria Lancaster, addressed a meeting of the Buy Local Savannah group last week at Johnny Harris restaurant on the topic of the arts and their impact on the local economy.

While the panel’s consensus seems to be that Savannah is finally thinking bigger -- read “thinking more like Charleston” -- there remains a sense that a lot of opportunities are still being passed by.

At the municipal level, the problem doesn’t seem to be one of funding. Locally, the city of Savannah invests over $900,000 of taxpayer money each year towards arts-related events and activities.

“I’ve been very lucky in that our budget hasn’t decreased since I’ve been here,” Baker says. “Some of the events we help fund are educational, such as Angela Beasley’s Puppet People, and others are on a larger scale, such as the Savannah Music Festival.”

Baker says while area politicians are warming to the idea of the arts as an important driver of the local economy, a business-like approach is often necessary to close the deal.

“I do see a shift, but it’s a good shift,” she says. “The city is expecting organizations to give more hard data and measurable results.”

Unfortunately, acquiring such data is much easier said than done. For example, in 2003, the Department of Cultural Affairs did a survey to find some hard data on arts usage in the community.

“We mailed surveys to 22 agencies,” Baker says. “Unfortunately only 16 agencies actually returned the surveys.”

Baker says until more reliable data comes in, her department will continue to hone its message so as to deliver services to taxpayers more effectively.

“We want to improve the draw of people to arts events, and to do that we need to know more about the demographics of those people,” she says. “Our goal is to make sure people who aren’t aware of the arts or don’t have access because of their location or their media, that we improve on that. We need to improve our outreach.”

One of the main general problems locally, according to Baker, is that local groups are divided into “two extremes.”

“There are seven organizations locally that have yearly budgets under $100,000 that are totally volunteer run,” she says, contrasting those groups with much larger organizations like the Telfair or the Savannah Music Festival.

“What we’re really missing in this community is mid-level organizations that have operating budgets between $500,000-$900,000 a year, with a paid professional staff,” she says.

“Often we find ourselves dealing with directors of volunteer agencies who believe in their mission with all heart and soul, but who usually have other jobs. Their focus is not on strategic management.”

Baker says one answer is an increase in partnerships between smaller arts organizations.

“I would love to see more collaborations,” she says. “Savannah agencies tend to work somewhat as islands. I think by collaborating they could share some infrastructure and marketing resources and thereby create stronger events.”

Not only stronger events, but more of them.

“When I first came here, people told me, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the summer, just close up and paint the building,’” says Lucas Director Ken Carter.

“So I ended up watching all these people with little stickers on their shirts from the trolleys walking by the front of the Lucas all summer long.”

Stung by these missed opportunities -- missed customers -- Carter stopped thinking seasonally and began thinking in terms of leverage.

“Savannah is second to none in being a destination city,” he says. “But the truth is there’s not enough events going on. There’s an enormous number of tourists, but the way to get them to stay is to give them more choices.”

Savannah has no problem bringing tourists here, but historically it’s had a problem getting them to stay here, with an average stay of about one night less than comparable destinations.

“When they stay more than one night they start needing more services,” Carter says. “The tourist numbers are great, but they’re not leaving behind as much as they could.”

Carter says his motivation is not just to put people in seats at the Lucas itself, but to promote business all over town.

“The Lucas is an attraction that drives traffic. For us the question is always, how can we maximize this artist’s presence into more of an impact on the community?” he says. “We don’t want people to spend an entire weekend at the Lucas. We want them to go for a coffee before the show, and maybe out to dinner afterwards.”

SCAD Director of Exhibitions Lance Tawzer says that the college organizes many of its events with an eye not only to students, but to the community at large.

“We really look at the community and try to prioritize shows with regards to what people really like,” he says. “Also, we run our galleries as professional galleries. We want our student artists and everybody who deals with our galleries to be treated as they would in any other gallery anywhere in the country.”

Tawzer says the popularity of SCAD’s monthly “Gallery Hops” is testament to the college’s reach in the community at large.

“We’re getting 300-plus people riding our buses during the gallery hops now,” Tawzer says. “And it’s not mainly tourists, it’s mainly people from the community. These people are Savannah-area people who get very excited about getting the piece in the mail announcing the next hop, or read about the shows in the papers. They come very excited and loaded with questions and they really enjoy themselves.”

Because arts events tend to drive spending to mostly local businesses rather than ones headquartered out of town, they’re that much more important to the local economy.

Joe Ippolito is the president of Buy Local Savannah and the owner of emarket South. He tells Connect that every dollar spent on local businesses multiplies four times within the local economy.

“And that’s a conservative estimate,” he says. “Some studies have shown that multiplier to be as high as seven.”

However, the real benefit of the arts comes when a community takes the next step, says Chris Miller of The Creative Coast, an organization devoted to shifting Savannah’s dominant business paradigm away from the traditional reliance on big industry and the military and into a more knowledge-based local economy.

“It used to be that people promoted the arts in a city because it’s fun. Then, it becomes something that attracts people so they’ll spend money there,” says Miller.

“The final and most innovative step is when you start thinking, if we have these things it attracts these kinds of people to the community. The truth is that towns that have a high level of culture and the arts grow an economy that attracts much better jobs than a town that doesn’t have those things,” he says.

“It leads to a clean, sustainable economy that pays higher wages,” Miller concludes. “Savannah is just now starting to get that.”

One of Savannah’s premier arts events is the Savannah Music Festival. The annual two-week event -- which brought in 36,000 attendees this year and forecasts 50,000 in 2006, according to the Festival’s Maria Lancaster -- has as one of its chief goals the promotion of the local economy.

“We seek to foster economic growth in the community primarily using local businesses,” says Lancaster, explaining that the Savannah Music Festival contracts with local firms for much of its needs, such as its website and printing.

According to Lancaster, the average visitor to the Savannah Music Festival “spent $352 a day in Savannah if they were from out of town, and $116 a day if they were local.”

She says 43 percent of Festival attendees come from outside Chatham County, with 30 percent of them coming from outside driving distance.

Lancaster says while it’s important to always keep a balance between out-of-town patrons and local residents, “we’d like to see that tourist number grow to about 45 percent.”

But regardless of patrons’ origin, Lancaster says that for the Savannah Music Festival, “the question is always, how do we get these people into local businesses?”

Lancaster says more can be done community-wide to make a bigger splash for the Festival.

“I think where we’ve been a little remiss is if you walk in downtown Charleston when Spoleto is going on, you know Spoleto is going on,” she says. “Even the window dressings in the stores all have something to do with Spoleto. The city is alive about Spoleto.”

In order to drive a higher volume of visitors, especially families, to the Savannah Music Festival in 2006, Lancaster says next year’s festival will feature a $10 ticket level for all events.

“And with a 20 percent discount for students, that means a SCAD student can get into a Festival event for $8.”

No discussion of the arts in Savannah can be complete without addressing the sadly decrepit state of the aging Civic Center downtown, a venue whose shortcomings trickle down to other local arts venues in very real ways.

Explaining that a top-level artist like Alan Jackson can cost a venue a minimum of $250,000, the Lucas’ Carter explains, “If you do the math, to pay a top-tier artist the Lucas would have to sell tickets for $200 apiece. As a historic theatre with 1200 seats we haven’t had as much to spend on artists.”

All observers we spoke with agree that not only does the city desperately need a new Civic Center, its location should remain downtown.

“If you look at the pattern of new ballpark/entertainment complexes being build by cities around the country, you see that the trend is to move them back downtown,” says Carter.

“Savannah has fundamentals that are phenomenal,” he says. “From my perspective as someone who’s a recent emigre to the city, it sometimes seems like the people who live here don’t always appreciate what they’ve got.

“People come to Savannah because of the Historic District,” he says. “That’s the postcard. That’s where people want to be.”

If you’re a purist who is upset by all this talk of arts as a business, it would be good to study the extended quote from President Coolidge:

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business... Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.”

Most of those whose day-to-day business is the arts haven’t forgotten why they got into the arts in the first place.

“The arts have intrinsic value,” says Carter, pointing out that study after study has shown that the involvement of young people in the arts makes them less likely to take wrong roads in life and more likely to become productive citizens. “The arts have a tangible impact there.”

Maria Lancaster of the Savannah Music Festival says the educational component of the arts is a core -- and growing -- function of the Festival.

“The festival served 8,000 students this year. We’re aiming for 10,000 in the 2006 Festival,” Lancaster says, referring to the many dedicated Festival performances specifically for local students.

“We believe the educational aspect really grows the community. That student is our next buyer, patron and audience member,” she says.

The city’s Eileen Baker says that “one of the very, very big pushes the city is diligently working on is more educational opportunities through the arts. And I don’t just mean opportunities that are specifically tied to things like the CRCT. There are tremendous opportunities for technical jobs in the arts.”

She says that for every one working actor in show business there are 12 technical and stage management staffers.

“We haven’t even tapped that market yet,” she says. “One of our focuses right now is to start folding younger people into the planning processes.”

Baker says the local presence of K-12 arts education in the public schools, especially in the magnet programs, has made a huge difference in the level and scope of local arts.

“The magnet programs have been wonderful. Of course, I still think ideally the arts should be available to every child. I’d like to see the arts increase regardless of magnets.”

But in any case, she says, “We’ve raised the bar -- and that’s a good thing.”

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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Connect Today 10.21.2016

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