Don’t Rest on Your Laurels: Arts and Economic Prosperity IV in Fort Worth, TX

Posted by Jody Ulich, Oct 17, 2013 0 comments

Jody Ulich Jody Ulich

Here’s the truth about cities: we are all competitive.  How many top-ten lists do you see every year—Most Livable, Most “Green,” Best for Families?  We all want to be on that list, and no one wants to end up falling short.  That’s why data can be so impactful for the decision-makers in a city, and it is precisely why economic impact studies are not new to the Fort Worth-area arts community.  Yet despite our long history of participating in different regional economic impact studies, we—like so many others across the country—saw our arts funding at risk and decreasing every year.  It became clear that in order for the numbers to be truly valid to our city leaders, we needed a study that reflected solely information from Fort Worth.  Those past reports—as robust as they might have seemed—never quite belonged to us, and never gained the traction we hoped that they would with decision-makers.

That is when Americans for the Arts came in with the Arts & Economic Prosperity IV ™ report, and we started to see an important shift in the thinking.  We stepped out to ask for the economic impact of Fort Worth, and only Fort Worth.  Americans for the Arts delivered and the Fort Worth community listened. We presented those findings throughout the community to business leaders and citizens – then finally to the City Council.    The Americans for the Arts data release was perfectly timed, coming out a month before our city budget was set in 2012.  Yet even then, the council still reduced the budget.

Fortunately, during that council meeting, our mayor stood up and said, “We have to stop this; we have to figure this out.”  She made a pledge to put together a task force of citizens to solve our shrinking budget, and true to her word, she put a very even-minded task force together.  Some were arts-supporters; some were business leaders who were not so sure city money should go to the arts.  Over the subsequent five months, the group went over our economic impact findings with a fine-toothed comb.  During that time they studied and talked to people in our community.  And they looked, too, at the graph showing how Forth Worth stacked up against other cities for arts funding: it didn’t look impressive.

So after months of studying the numbers presented in the Economic Impact Study, analyzing support in other cities, and listening to citizens, arts supporters, and arts organizations, our city council listened and responded—to the tune of $1.1 million, doubling our funding from last year.  It goes to show: personalizing your numbers makes a difference, and it never hurts to get the competitive fires burning, either.

In the end we all want our cities to be the best they can be, and these findings made it possible to see exactly what we could do to make that a reality.  Thanks to the Arts & Economic Prosperity study, the task force did just that: they found that the city should be involved in funding the arts, suggested funding in the range of $1.1-$3.0 million per year, and even identified potential funding sources.  The $1.1 million dollars in city funding that city council just passed a few weeks ago could not have happened without these numbers, but it also did not come easily.

This is where hard work—and never resting on our laurels—comes into play.  We did not just present to city council, pat ourselves on the back, and leave it at that: something we do all-too-frequently as arts administrators, and something I have certainly been guilty of myself with previous economic impact studies.  The Americans for the Arts study was too big, and too important, to let fly under the radar.  We had a two-week rollout, which included a visit from Randy Cohen, Vice President of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts, the city council presentation, a presentation to business leaders and CEOs, and a presentation to the general public.  Because we had rolled it out to the public and there was a very positive reaction from the community, our Mayor gave us that extra chance to prove our worth.  We talked about the conservative impact of $84 million coming into the Fort Worth community because of the arts, and it was truly one of first times people realized the tangible positive impact in our city.  We all love the arts, but to see the impact compared to other cities in the state and country—and how much money other cities pledged to the arts in return—made a huge difference.

Business leaders in particular understand these numbers so well, and the report paints a clear picture for them.  It is a big number, and I’m not sure they have ever looked at it that way.  When anyone examines the report, the methodology, and the Associations that endorse it, it becomes clear that this is valid, reliable information.  That is critical.  Anyone can throw out numbers, but not everyone has the clout and the proven track record to back it up.  The Arts & Economic Prosperity Study has both, and that counts for something with leaders in the community.

Our passion for the arts keeps us fighting every day.  We share our message with our politicians and our community at every turn.  When your community shares in the passion, your politicians will, too. The economy is cyclical, but when things are getting rough, you need policymakers to know that the one thing you DON’T cut is a thing that feeds the economy.  The arts feed the economy and the people that live here.  That is what our Arts & Economic Prosperity report proves.  Keep this study, keep it updated, and keep it in front of people on a constant basis.  At the root of it all, every city is competitive—every city wants to be the best, and every city wants to make sure it is not falling behind in having a vibrant and growing arts environment.  The Arts & Economic Prosperity study lights a fire under people, but it also makes them very proud of their city.  If you haven’t already, add it as a tool in your tool-belt next time around!

 

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