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The Arts as an Instrument
for Community
Renewal & Prosperity

Nina Mitchell Wells
By Nina Mitchell Wells
New Jersey Secretary of State

children sitting at table working on an art project
Children who participate in the arts are more likely to be recognized for academioc excellence (especially in the areas of math, science and standardized tests), perform community service, play key roles in school, and are less likely to engage in anti-social behavior.

As New Jersey’s secretary of state, my portfolio is as diverse as it is rewarding. Moreover, these responsibilities often reflect areas of importance to municipalities statewide and, in turn, elected leaders at all levels of government. Whether it’s the oversight of a progressive, fair and transparent statewide elections process; promoting New Jersey as the ideal place to live, work, visit and raise a family; or preserving the state’s considerable historic, cultural and artistic legacy for generations to come—all have a profound impact on the very fabric of our communities.

Yet, as is the case nationwide, New Jersey is navigating tough economic and budgetary times. The severity of the fiscal crisis is widely known and well-documented, and so too is the need to focus efforts squarely on areas where state expenditures guarantee the greatest return on investment. In New Jersey, any such discussion must begin with the state’s unrivaled collection of fine arts, cultural and historic sites. The economic impact of these venues is extraordinary, and critical to sustaining the overall quality of life for municipalities statewide.

I was honored to moderate a panel on this very topic last November at the annual League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City. Titled “Transforming Your Community’s Landscape: The Power Arts, History and Culture,” the panel explored how effective the arts, history and culture can be as a tool for realizing a municipality’s highest priorities while maintaining growth within communities amid challenging economic times.

Economics In this discussion, perhaps no data better encapsulates the benefits of investing in the arts than the following: for every dollar spent by an Arts Council grantee organization, another $7.28 was generated in the economy. Taken together, organizations funded by the State Council on the Arts:

• stimulate $2 billion in overall economic activity;
• return $36 million in state tax revenue;
• support 20,000 businesses and 100,000 jobs; and
• produce 35,000 events and attract 18 million attendees who, in turn, spend over $400 million within local economies.

And, while extraordinary, these numbers fail to paint a complete picture of the larger economic impact arts and historical organizations have statewide. If one includes all nonprofit arts and historic industries, not simply recipients of State Arts Council funding, the economic number exceeds $2 billion annually, with state tax revenue surpassing $50 million.

Further insight comes from an examination of individual municipalities as they represent, in and of themselves, a microcosm of larger economic realities. In Newark, for example, a recent Americans for the Arts (AFTA) study placed the annual economic impact of the arts at over $177 million, local and state tax revenue at $14 million, and the creation 4,600 jobs generating more than $96 million in household income. The AFTA study uncovered similar phenomena in New Brunswick, another city renowned for its concentration of arts related venues. In addition to generating $36.5 million in total economic impact, coupled with $2.6 million in tax revenues, arts patrons spent an aggregate $10.1 million on meals and lodging during their stay. Combined with the fact that cultural travelers tend to stay longer and spend roughly 25 percent more per trip than the average U.S. traveler, it’s easy to see why the promotion of arts and cultural sites remain a cornerstone of any real and substantive urban revitalization initiative.

Local Success Moreover, similar success, in relative terms, has been echoed in other municipalities throughout New Jersey. And just as is the case in Newark and New Brunswick, this progress is driven by the diversity and number of arts, history and cultural venues statewide. To put it simply, whether they are individuals, businesses or government, people expect a return on their investment. If the aforementioned data suggests anything, targeted investments in promoting the arts are not only profitable, but necessary to maintaining any viable, tourism-ready community.

In documenting Lambertville’s artistic and cultural renaissance at November’s panel discussion, Mayor and League Past President David DelVecchio wisely noted, “Our ability to build a solid business district and thriving tourism industry has relied on a very simple premise: Play to your strengths.”

In many ways, this defines our strategy at the state level. Yet, just as Mayor DelVecchio noted, you mustn’t do so blindly, but with a keen understanding of history, strategic advantages and areas of maximum potential. The latter, especially, is germane to any discussion of the benefits arts and cultural institutions have on affecting non-economic benefits for municipalities.

Education One non-economic area where the arts play a key role is in the quality of education within individual communities, an issue of paramount importance to mayors statewide.

Education is a quality of life issue, and the relationship between academic achievement and exposure to the arts is undeniable. The facts are as clear as they are telling; children who participate in the arts are more likely to be recognized for academic excellence (especially in the areas of math, science and standardized tests), perform community service, play key leadership roles in school, and are less likely to engage in anti-social behavior. For at-risk youth, particularly, the benefits are telling; when exposed to the arts, academic improvement is closely followed by a discernable reduction in delinquent behaviors such as truancy, drug use and violence.

This composite is not only proof of the merits of arts promotion, but the necessity to do everything we can—at all levels of government—to ensure its continued vibrancy. This is certainly true of our efforts at the Department of State. Even amid a period of budgetary constraints, our focus has never wavered despite the need to do more with less. I’m proud to say we have—and will—continue to do so.

The State Museum The past year was one defined by tremendous success and progress, none greater than the re-opening of one of our greatest treasures: the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. Perhaps no venue better illustrates all of benefits of arts promotion and advancement. Whether as a magnet for economic growth and renewal, an educational resource to enrich, educate and enlighten the lives of schoolchildren and adults for generations to come, or as a source of pride for New Jerseyans, the arts will forever define the unique appeal of what we are as communities and, more importantly, what we’ll remain as a state.

As state officials, municipal leaders, parents or, together, as citizens of New Jersey, let us celebrate our shared view that, simply: “We would have it no other way.”

This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 3, March 200

 

 

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