That Gut Feeling: Arts & Economic Prosperity in Chattanooga, TN

Posted by Dan Bowers, Sep 17, 2013 0 comments

One thing I’ve learned during my years in the field of arts administration is that when it comes to the arts, decision makers are often willing to discount their intuition.  They ignore that gut feeling they have that the arts really do make a difference in their community, because it can be difficult to prove.  However, there is another lesson here as well: facts proven by valid research are extremely powerful and difficult to ignore.

That’s why last year, when a seven out of nine City Council members were newly-elected to the local government, ArtsBuild was there to welcome them with more than just an ask, and more than a promise that any funding to the arts would provide a real and tangible return on investment.  We came armed with the proof—our customized Arts & Economic Prosperityreport from Americans for the Arts.  The payoff?  Just a few weeks ago, we received word that the City Council approved an increase of $49,000 for ArtsBuild over the City’s 2012 funding.

With the economy still growing hesitantly, $49,000 is no drop in the bucket. This is a 22 percent increase in our allocation from the City from last year.  Clearly, these dollars will make an enormous difference to the arts community in Chattanooga.  This decision by the City Council, however, is symbolic of something larger: an understanding that the arts are more than just window dressing for our City.  This investment demonstrates that the arts are integral to creating the kind of place where we all want to live and work. 

In an editorial written by Mayor Andy Berke in the August 22 edition of The Pulse, he stated that, “public art and creative activities improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Chattanooga’s reputation as an artist-friendly community also draws tourism and boosts our local economy. ”  Our city leaders have declared—through their words and through their actions—that the arts are essential to creating a unique sense of place here in Chattanooga.

That message is vitally important for our business community, too!  It was no surprise to us in the arts community that when Volkswagen announced the construction of a new billion-dollar plant in Chattanooga in 2008, they cited our vibrant arts and culture industry as one of the reasons for their decision.  In fact, the announcement was made from our own Hunter Museum for American Art.  Volkswagen clearly had that gut feeling.  What we now have is the data to back it up.  Whether we’re presenting to corporate leaders, government officials, funders, or patrons, we have included in every single case study a copy of the Arts & Economic Prosperity findings.  To put it simply, this study is a powerful advocacy tool—and it really works.

The Arts & Economic Prosperity report is an integral part of any sales pitch that we make and any materials we leave behind after we’ve spoken with people about a gift.  This economic impact study works with companies of all shapes and sizes, from mom-and-pop stores to Volkswagen and everything in between.  Business leaders have a particular appreciation for seeing something that is this well-organized.  If they have any inclination to support us—and often they have to sell up the line—this ammunition helps them to make the case.  Even when the “want-to” is there, the right words to actively advocate for and support arts-friendly policies and funding can be difficult to find.  The Arts and Economic Prosperity report quantifies that gut feeling that the arts are important to our community and transforms it into persuasive, reliable, and understandable data that work across disciplines and constituencies.  That benefits the arts in Chattanooga.  And, as we can now prove, what is good for the arts is also good for our economy, for our citizens, and for our city.

Before we partnered with Americans for the Arts to do this study, we didn’t have hard numbers.  We could use their free online calculator to extrapolate estimates, but the numbers didn’t belong directly to us.  We wanted something to hang our hat on that was customized for our local community that came from surveys that were collected here, and that we worked on ourselves.  These are our numbers, and we are proud to talk about them with anyone and everyone in Chattanooga.  At the end of the day, these numbers don’t belong to the arts administrators alone: they belong to every single member of our community.

To me, our Arts and Economic Prosperity report is not just a compilation of numbers: it’s a connecting point for our community to come together to support the arts as a benefit to us all.  Here’s one more thing I’ve learned: you can never have too many advocates for the arts—and thanks to this study, we’re gathering more every day!

Do you have a customized economic impact study for your community?  The Americans for the Arts Research Services team is ready to help you make a difference in your community.  To learn more, visit our Customized Economic Impact Study Service website here.  For answers to any questions, or to request a draft contract for your study, please give us a call at 202-371-2830 or email us at

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