Arts Stimulate Local Economy and Civic Dialogue

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman –

There’s no doubt that arts and culture influence quality of life. Now they also are demonstrating how to pump energy into Tucson’s economy and animate the city’s civic dialogue.

Connecting the dots is Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council since 2006. “Everyone does better when arts function in a community,” Bedoya said.

Bedoya’s expertise in civic engagement and cultural policy are helping anchor powerful new initiatives for the 27-year-old TPAC, which manages grants, partnerships, public art programs, artist leadership and cultural development research for the City of Tucson and Pima County.

Bedoya points to Americans for the Arts data that underscores the arts are a long-term economic driver. The 2007 Arts and Economic Prosperity study reported on a $166 billion industry that generated 5.7 million full-time jobs nationwide. An update on the groundbreaking report is expected this month. “Before this study there was a disconnect between perception and reality of how arts impact a community,” he said.

Locally, the arts generate more than $57 million annually. The direct impact is obvious –from tickets sold to symphony or theatre performances or tourists who check into a hotel, then head out to purchase art in local galleries. Less obvious is the economic impact on the performers, graphic artists, costume designers and vendors who populate this region’s many cultural festivals, as well as seed money for organizations to develop arts experiences for youth and other projects. The arts and culture are woven throughout Tucson’s economic fabric, Bedoya said. And that is an important attractor for new businesses looking to locate here.

Connecting Citizenship and Culture
A flip side to the arts as an economic driver is the responsibility of the arts to manifest a civil society through its artists and media.

“Communities grow when different voices are brought together to build bridges that shape meaningful experiences. The arts can and should be connected with the community and create authentic spaces that promote self-expression and collaboration,” he said.

One recent example of how the arts demonstrate a powerful contribution to society was the outpouring of artistic work to reflect public spirit after the Jan. 8 shooting tragedy. Bedoya said, “Through its creative tools, the arts helped facilitate a healing process.”

A former Rockefeller Fellow at New York University and Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Bedoya has a Tucson legacy: His father was born in a mining community that once thrived along north Silverbell Road. Bedoya was executive director of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations when a research assignment brought him back to Tucson. The diverse, vital arts community he found here solidified a desire to return to his desert roots.

“Our artists, arts organizations and audiences provide evidence about what’s right about our plurality,” he said. Bedoya led TPAC to convene a number of forums to chew over the role of arts and culture in civil discourse.

Rooted in Place
Discussions at the forefront of “Tucson imagining our lives together” spurred the founding of People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement (P.L.A.C.E.). This innovative TPAC initiative became a platform to support creative place-making – and it gained nationwide attention and financial support from partnering foundations, including the Kresge Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation and Open Society Institute.

“Every day the arts express and connect conversations about real conditions and about how the social landscape is part of our lives,” Bedoya explained. “Communities can grow apart and tear – as Tucson knows. But we can’t run away from our knots. We need to find creative ways to move beyond.”

To date, TPAC’s P.L.A.C.E. initiative has funded more than 45 arts-based civic-engagement projects through more than $279,000 in grants. This year, 18 local organizations creating arts-based projects designed to strengthen cross-cultural understanding and civic stewardship were funded.

The projects span the spectrum – ranging from a documentary about El Casino Ballroom, Tucson’s last surviving ballroom and a center of community culture and dance since 1947, to “Beyond Groceries,” a project of the Tucson Chinese Association which explores the relationships between Tucson’s Chinese grocers of old and multi-ethnic neighborhoods.

Other projects to be completed in 2012 include training “community scholars” to record and share stories of cross-cultural mixing, migrations, civic participation and artistic practices…a participatory arts project to facilitate discussion about the issues of land use and the environment…and a digital photographic documentation project with San Ignacio Yaqui Council of the Pascua-Yaqui Tribe.

Cultural Assets
As P.L.A.C.E. projects are creating a sense of civic belonging, another TPAC initiative is demonstrating the public value of how creative work contributes to social change.

Through support from the National Endowment for the Arts, TPAC has been awarded $100,000 to support cultural assets mapping and community engagement for Tucson’s historic warehouse arts district, known as WAMO.

The mapping process will include an inventory of the local creative economy in the Warehouse Arts Triangle and an analysis of the economic real estate and social impact of arts and cultural activity in this area.

“It’s an affirmation of work undertaken and a signal that the Pima Cultural Plan has taken another step forward,” Bedoya said.

“During the past five years, our arts and cultural organizations have struggled to cope,” he continued. “At the same time, however, there is increasing recognition of the importance of cultural stewardship and the role of arts in place-making. Very few projects so powerfully feed the spirit and tangibly impact the economy.”

“The arts let us thrive,” Bedoya said. “And arts-based civic engagement not only generates jobs – it reflects healthy communities.”

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