PCA delivers data on Charlottesville's robust arts scene

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Maggie Guggenheimer, consultant to the Piedmont Council of the Arts, revealed good news for arts and culture in our community. (Photo by John Robinson)

Charlottesville is famous for the arts. Lifelong residents and first-time visitors alike will often remark on the flourishing creative expression found here, especially for a town of only 40,000. But the vibrancy of an arts community is a difficult thing to quantify—until now.

In 2010, Charlottesville participated in Arts & Economic Prosperity IV, the largest-ever national study of “The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences.” The study included 112 arts organizations and thousands of audience members in both the City of Charlottesville and in Albemarle County, and gathered results totaling more than three times the required data sample for statistical accuracy. It was funded by local organizations, with support from the Charlottesville and Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Kurt Burkhart, executive director of the CACVB, said, “Communities that embrace the arts are healthier in mind, in spirit, and economically…cities and counties across the U.S. are doing exactly what we’re doing right now—figuring out how to compete for audiences’ hearts, and, of course, their wallets.”

On Wednesday, June 13, the Piedmont Council for the Arts presented the newly released results of the survey, and they are impressive. Maggie Guggenheimer, currently PCA’s consultant for research and planning, spearheaded Charlottsville’s participation in the study during her tenure as the organization’s executive director. “During a recession, some people think of the arts as a luxury. What these results show is that the arts don’t cost money, they make money…not only is Charlottesville a great place for the arts, but also, the arts are great for Charlottesville,” Guggenheimer said.

The results show that the arts contribute $114.4 million to the Charlottesville economy each year. That’s the second highest arts income for a city of this size, only Providence, Rhode Island spends more on the arts, and many cities in the next largest grouping actually spend much less.

“A lot of this spending has a multiplier effect on the local economy,” Burkhart said, “and not just for arts organizations but for dozens of other local businesses.” Matt Joslyn, executive director of Live Arts, added, “UVA and the Hospital, when they’re courting employees, they say: ‘take a look at the vibrancy of this Downtown.’” According to Chris Engel, director of economic development for the city, “Most companies’ primary concern today is in attracting and retaining a quality workforce.”

Furthermore, visitors to Charlottesville spend an average of $68 per person when they attend an event in town—the highest average for any city of our size. That number doesn’t even include the money spent on the event itself, but secondary expenses such as dining, parking, and lodging. The data also show that if Charlottesville weren’t hosting these events, visitors would be traveling elsewhere for arts events. Engel said, “A lot of cities who are successful in the arts concentrate on attracting what they call S.O.B.s—that’s not meant as a derogatory term, it stands for symphonies, opera, and ballet,” indicating the types of events that reliably attract wealthy donors and patrons.

Though there’s no direct survey data about the income levels of non-residents as opposed to residents, it’s not hard to infer that middle class and lower income audiences are more likely to attend events that are inexpensive or free. “When I saw the individual surveys coming in, there were so many [respondents] who attended free events and spent almost nothing. I was actually concerned that the data would skew in the opposite direction,” said Guggenheimer. Her assumption is that the out-of-town spenders sometimes spend in such high amounts that the data is “heavily weighted” towards high-spending visitors.

At a City Council meeting two weeks ago, Council unanimously agreed to grant $25,000 to PCA towards the development of the first Charlottesville area cultural plan, an effort aimed at strategic organizing for local arts, the first of its kind in Charlottesville.

When asked if there was concern that concentrating on the wallets of wealthy arts audiences could lead Charlottesville to ignore the middle and lower class audiences, Guggeinheimer clarified “[the cultural plan] will focus on a group of topics, including accessibility, the creative workforce, and also collaborations with local educational institutions. This data is a great starting point, and it will help us function on one front, cultural tourism, but that’s not the sole goal of the committee.”

Many representatives at the presentation, including Burkhart, Engel, and Joslyn, were quick to note that the arts have a cultural value in addition to their economic value. “The humanities are where we learn empathy and understanding, especially as our schools are increasingly focused on employability,” said Joslyn. “For a lot of young people, who are used to carefully constructing their identities online, the arts are often the only place they feel comfortable communicating with each other.”

PCA is planning a series of events in September with the intention of sharing the study’s findings in detail.

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