A State of the Arts Print
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 29 August 2000 18:00
Newt Gingrich might be the best thing that ever happened to the arts. Really. When Gingrich ascended to the position of House Speaker in 1994, he and his cohorts in the short-lived Republican Revolution sparked a debate about public funding for the arts. Arts groups quivered and wondered how long they’d be around without government funds.

But then a strange thing happened. Their existences seemingly threatened, arts organizations learned how to become more adept at fundraising and explaining the economic benefits of arts programming to the public and government.

“We’re much smarter now,” said Judi Holdorf, executive director of Quad City Arts. Cultural organizations, she said, “have become much more sophisticated in their fundraising.”

The current vibrancy of the arts in the Quad Cities became especially apparent through a recent survey of not-for-profit arts organizations titled “The Social and Economic Impact of Cultural Non-Profits on the Quad Cities Region.” The survey was conducted this past spring for the Quad City Cultural Collaboration (a coalition spearheaded by Quad City Arts) by two local MBA candidates. The survey’s results are available from Quad City Arts.

The survey found that 20 not-for-profit arts organizations in the Quad Cities hosted a total of 4,681 events over the course of 12 months, an average of 13 per day. Those events drew an estimated 1.3 million people.

“I’ve often heard people complain that there’s nothing to do,” Holdorf said. The survey clearly proves that assertion false.

“There are a lot of different energies going on right now,” said Dean Schroeder, executive director of MidCoast Fine Arts. “It is a very good time for the arts.”

Most everybody agrees that this is a high time for the arts in the Quad Cities. But the survey is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, a close look raises a lot of questions about the validity of the numbers. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no discussion of how the arts are inherently valuable; the results are dominated by numbers.

Just as importantly, the survey doesn’t really assess the arts needs of the community, and it doesn’t look forward to a time when the economy won’t be quite so robust.

Holdorf admits that the study raises as many questions as it answers. The study’s recommendations include re-surveying arts groups and patrons to yield more meaningful and long-term findings.

The survey is “a very good first step,” Schroeder said. “It’s a lot better than anything else we have out there.”

Arts Renaissance

As a snapshot of 12 months of art activities, the survey is an excellent tool. It’s a numeric confirmation of a common-sense conclusion: There’s a lot going on.

The Quad Cities has plenty of arts staples, from Genesius Guild, the longest-running outdoor Shakespearean theatre in America, to numerous public-sculpture sites along the extensive riverfront bike trails, to the litany of annual arts-related events in the Quad Cities, such as Riverssance, successful blues, jazz, reggae and zydeco festivals, and quarterly gallery hops. The Quad Cities have come a long way, but it looks like the future has even more in store for the community.

The past few months have seen an explosion of new events and programs. This summer saw the first Metro Arts 2000, a program run by Quad City Arts to boost interest by high-school kids in the arts. There was the inaugural ArtStroll, a first-of-its-kind collaboration among nearly every arts group in the Quad Cities. And the Quad City International Airport has made a commitment to have permanent and rotating art exhibits in its expanded terminal.

Most impressively, there’s the $160 million Vision Iowa package that includes moving the Davenport Museum of Art downtown, expanding the Adler Theatre stage (see sidebar), adding an IMAX theatre to the Putnam, and building a performing-arts center in Bettendorf, among other projects. Davenport, Bettendorf, and Scott County are jointly seeking $75 million from the state’s Vision Iowa fund for the package. (All the involved parties pledge that their projects will move forward even if the proposal does not receive Vision Iowa funding. The state will likely begin accepting applications in November.) One of the most striking aspects of all this recent and planned growth is that it’s fairly evenly spread among the Quad Cities, with each city having an arts anchor and several supplementary facilities.

In Moline, The MARK brings in big-name entertainers, while the Robert E. Bartlett Trust has earmarked millions of dollars for arts in the city. Meanwhile, The District in Rock Island, with quarterly gallery hops and Arts Alley projects, continues to expand its role in the arts beyond popular music festivals.

The vitality of downtown Davenport hinges on the success as an arts hub of the planned $30 million museum of art, but there’s also discussion of establishing the only kaleidoscope museum in North America downtown. Schematic designs for the new building have already been approved, and the museum is currently in the process of securing bids and funding commitments.

Bettendorf’s riverfront redevelopment plans center on its planned performing-arts center. The facility, which will likely include several theatres seating several hundred people each, would afford performing-arts groups more intimate settings than larger venues such as the Adler. The City of Bettendorf hired two consultants to conduct a feasibility study and develop preliminary plans for the facility, and Mayor Ann Hutchinson said she expects their reports by October 1. Hutchinson said the city has had to accelerate its plans for the facility and doesn’t even have a cost estimate yet, adding that she expects the center to cost between $15 million and $25 million. “It’s something we’ve seen time and time again that this community will support,” Hutchinson said.

And new facilities are needed. Arts have grown so much that “there isn’t space available” for some events, said Eileen Eitrheim, marketing director of the Galvin Fine Arts Center at St. Ambrose University. Arts groups often used Galvin for their events, but “our center is booked solid,” Eitrheim said. That’s a nice problem to have, she added: “It’s exciting … that there’s a space shortage.”

A lot of different factors have led to this tremendous arts growth, chief among them an unprecedented economic boom in the 1990s. Individuals, corporations, and governments have more money to throw around, and corporations have begun to use cultural opportunities as a criterion for choosing locations for new facilities.

Eitrheim also cited changing leisure habits. Arts-attendance “numbers just plummeted when the [casino] riverboats came in,” she said, but cultural organizations have seen people returning to the arts in recent years. People are also putting more of a priority on the arts, in their lives and for their children.

“We’ve seen our numbers steadily increasing” at Galvin, she added. Five years ago, Galvin typically drew between 200 and 300 people for a professional arts event. Now, audiences range from 400 to 850 people. “It’s an extremely open-minded audience, progressive,” she said.

Gambling money has certainly played an important role in the growth of the arts over the past decade.

The Riverboat Development Authority (RDA) has earmarked 10 percent of the gaming revenues it distributes for arts programs. Over the past nine years, the organization has contributed more than $2 million to the arts, said RDA President Mary Ellen Chamberlin. Among other projects, RDA has funded programs for Quad City Arts and MidCoast Fine Arts and commissioned two original works for the Quad City Symphony.

“None of us are artists,” Chamberlin said. But from the beginning, “we’ve considered … many of the arts projects economic stimulus.” Arts and culture attract employers and employees, she said.

The Scott County Regional Authority (SCRA) gave $81,400 to arts organizations in 1999. The authority doesn’t set aside a percentage of its grant money for the arts. Instead, arts groups compete with other not-for-profit groups for about $1.3 million a year. “We see ourselves as trying to increase quality of life,” said Richard Pokora, chairperson of the SCRA not-for-profit panel. “Our grants are determined by the merit of the projects. We look for a project that we think is going to make a difference, is innovative.”

But many arts organizations don’t know the SCRA exists. “We have to remind people,” Pokora said. Granting authorities are not the only ones investing in the arts. Private corporations and media outlets support nearly every art presentation in the Quad Cities with either cash or in-kind donations. “It’s for our employees, and visitors who come to our company,” said James Collins, director of community relations for John Deere. The company supports Quad City Arts’ Festival of Trees and the Visiting Artists program, Collins said, and typically brings in three or four visiting artists a year to perform for the public in the corporate auditorium.

Collins also noted that supporting the arts serves company goals by attracting and retaining employees. “It’s good business,” he said.

The recent arts survey is a clear example of how arts groups have begun to cater to the economic-development mindset over the past six years or so. They’re no longer arguing for the inherent importance of cultural events; they’re pitching the arts as economic tools, to infuse money into the local economy, and to draw and keep businesses and workers.

Using “multipliers” to calculate economic impact, the survey determined that the surveyed arts groups generated $35.4 million in economic activity and $2.5 million in local and state tax revenue in a year, with operating budgets of $13.2 million. Of that budget amount, about $5 million came from government sources. These arts groups had 653 full- and part-time paid employees.

The survey also claims that 24 percent of people who attended these arts events came from outside the Quad Cities. These patrons spend money not only with arts groups but with restaurants, hotels, and local merchants. “It brings money into our community,” Holdorf said.

The message is that arts are good for the economy, and that’s certainly an important point to make. Legislators might not give two hoots about a ballet performance or an art exhibit, but they love to hear about economic development. But economic development isn’t the only thing.

ARE THE NUMBERS GOOD?

A key shortcoming of the study is that it failed to address two of its three stated goals, and they’re important ones.

The first goal, accomplished admirably, was to show how arts groups contribute to the “economic vitality” of the Quad Cities.

But the final two goals were barely addressed in the study’s report.

One goal was to “identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in the programs offered and possibly identify underserved populations.” Another was to “substantiate the social value of nonprofit cultural organizations and how they improve the quality of life in the Quad Cities.” The two goals are related, both dealing with the quality of the programs and areas in which they can improve.

It’s disheartening that so little energy was spent on the “social value” goal. As valuable as the economic-impact numbers are, it’s hard to get very excited about the arts when they’re being pitched in purely economic terms.

“Those things are important, but they’re secondary to the inherent value of the arts,” Galvin’s Eitrheim said. “A lot of people buy into that economic aspect. There’s much more that’s more important.”

Obviously, the works of art themselves have a value, and artists need support both for the creation and presentation of their work. For patrons of the arts and the community at-large, the arts improve quality of life by expanding leisure options and exposing audiences to new ideas, feelings, and expressions. But the study offered no validation of those components of arts programs.

In the same vein, while the gross numbers of events and attendees are impressive, they can’t speak to the quality of events. Several key questions are left unanswered: Are the arts offerings in the Quad Cities high-quality? Are arts programs supporting and encouraging less-mainstream works, in art, music, theatre, and film? And are organizations reaching out to traditionally underserved communities – racial minorities, people with disabilities – as both artist and audience? These questions are given lip service at best in the survey.

It’s also worth evaluating other components of the survey and its methodology.

First, it gives equal weight to a half-hour school appearance by a visiting artist and a month-long art exhibit. While that methodological idiosyncrasy will likely correct itself in numeric terms, it doesn’t seem to accurately reflect arts activity.

That issue is compounded by the distribution of program types and audience numbers among the arts. According to the survey, 43 percent of arts events were music-related, followed by theatre (29 percent), exhibitions (7 percent), and festivals (1 percent). (Approximately 20 percent of events were classified as “other.”) Yet exhibitions accounted for a whopping 82 percent of audience, followed by music (8 percent), festivals (6 percent), and theatre (3 percent).

So while music and theatre accounted for 72 percent of events under the survey’s methodology, they drew a mere 11 percent of the audience. And exhibits, although only 7 percent of events, drew a vast majority of patrons.

To some degree, this reflects the unfairness of counting a long exhibit as a single event.

More importantly, it points out the difficulty in measuring exhibit audience. Because MidCoast exhibits are at high-traffic locations – The MARK, the Mississippi Valley Welcome Center, in downtown storefronts – a lot of people have the opportunity to see them. But how can anybody figure the number of people actually looking at them?

Susan Schoenhofer, one of the two St. Ambrose MBA candidates who prepared the survey, said that attendance figures came from a group’s “best estimate” or “best guess.” This is the point at which quantifying events and ascribing an economic impact to them becomes troublesome.

More distressing, the survey’s results are almost universally based on assumptions, some clearly backed up and others seemingly careless. The use of multipliers will inspire little disagreement, but it’s easy to shoot holes in some of the survey’s key assertions.

One statistic that will probably be relied upon more than any other is that nearly a quarter of the people attending arts events in the Quad Cities come from outside the area.

That’s crucial because money spent by locals is cash that would probably spent in the Quad Cities anyway. (That money is still important; a dollar spent on the arts does a lot more for the local economy than a dollar spent at Best Buy or Wal Mart.)

The largest economic impact of the arts is the money drawn from other areas. Visitors will spend money at hotels, restaurants, and stores. The multiplier for outside money is larger. But the survey’s figure is dubious at best.

It’s worrisome on one level to use such specificity (23.6 percent) when the number is a combined figure based on estimates.

It’s even more questionable because those estimates are by no means scientific. The methodology is not consistent, and the numbers probably aren’t close to accurate. Some arts organizations might use visitor books or mailing lists, but not all patrons sign the books or ask to be put on mailing lists. An organization such as MidCoast is going to claim that nearly all visitors to its gallery at the Welcome Center off the I-80 bridge are out-of-towners, but how many go to the center for the art itself, and how many actually spend any money in the Quad Cities?

If the numbers are in doubt, it becomes difficult to trust any proclamation about how many tourist dollars are actually coming into the community because of the arts. Because the numbers this survey relies upon can be reasonably questioned, they have in some ways lost their efficacy and meaning.

This is where a qualitative analysis of the arts programming could better describe the role and importance of the arts. While visitors to this area come for a myriad of reasons – business, family, sports, gambling, shopping – a stay surrounded by the arts might enhance the experience, perhaps encouraging a return visit or even a permanent move to the Quad Cities.

But what if numbers are all we have?

This isn’t a criticism of the survey designers; these are problems inherent in samples such as this. That’s one reason casting the arts solely in monetary and numeric terms can be dangerous.

“Any survey is only as good as the information given to it,” Holdorf replies. But that’s a weak excuse when the front cover of a four-page flier summarizing the study proclaims in large type that “23.6 percent of the people who attended events were from outside the Quad Cities.”

The survey also spent no time looking toward the future. While the economic boom has done much for the arts, it can’t last forever. In hard times, money for the arts – from all sources – will dwindle.

A few cultural organizations – publicly funded institutions and large organizations such as Quad City Arts – probably won’t need to scale back their operations to survive. Colleges and universities have always made the arts a priority. The Davenport Museum of Art and the Family Museum of Arts and Science are partially funded by civic dollars. And Quad City Arts has both cash reserves and an endowment.

Most not-for-profits aren’t nearly so lucky, though.

“There are going to be some [organizations] lost to bad times,” Schroeder said.

That’s one reason that both Holdorf and Schroeder push for coordination among arts groups.

“Partnering is another way that organizations can secure their futures,” Holdorf said.

“This would be the best time to rally together,” Schroeder noted.

In other words, it’s important to act while the going is good.