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A case for the arts

Cities all across the country have found the arts to be a rich source of revenue. Why not Fort Wayne?

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-05-06


Marfa. This miniscule city in the far west of Texas has interested me for the last 5 years. A city of approximately 2,500 people, sitting on 1.6 miles of land interests me, Marfa is far more progressive and has a better standing in the international art community than Fort Wayne, a city with more than 100 times its population, and sitting on about 50 times as much land.

Marfa was lucky enough to be chosen by Donald Judd, the great minimalist artist, to house some of his, and other minimalist’s works in the early 70’s. This public art later became the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation. These arts organizations have turned Marfa into a booming tourist center once a year during the Chinati Foundation’s Open House, which shows off the highlights of its collection. During this annual event, artists, collectors, and the rest of the art world elite descend upon this town in the thousands and demand all of the urban luxuries that they are accustomed to.

This is only one example of the ways which art has transformed this tiny Texas city. Other organizations have seen the benefits of the contemporary art world’s presence in this city, like the Lannan Foundation’s writers in residence program, the Marfa Theatre Group, and Ballroom Marfa. The latter, Ballroom Marfa, in conjunction with the organization Arts Production Fund, funded the creation of “Marfa Prada,” a designer boutique-as-permanent sculpture, which has become a curious attraction to both the art and fashion world tourist set. This art world connection has also been partially responsible for choosing of Marfa for the filming location of No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood.

These, and many more reasons, are why it saddens me that Fort Wayne’s civic leaders have closed their eyes to the potential that the arts have in the creation and revitalization of a community. If you look at the BluePrint Plus projection maps for the revitalization of downtown Fort Wayne, you won’t see the expansion of the arts in any real ways. Of course, the Barr Street District has been marked as an area for a “rich concentration of public art”, but honestly, it was designated this years ago, and aside from the decades old Mark Di Suvero sculptures around the Performing Arts Center and Museum of Art there isn’t a presence of art at all. Even more, outside of the Barr Street District, the plan fails to mention the role of art at all in the development of our city.

When you look at the bare numbers, this issue becomes a startling misunderstanding. A study conducted by economists at the Georgia Institute of Technology for Americans for the Arts last year revealed that the nonprofit arts industry alone generates $134 billion in economic activity every year. When broken down a bit more, the same study found that these arts organizations (museums, non-profit galleries, theatre and dance companies, etc) pulled in $24.4 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. And all of these become sad facts when one realizes that the combined federal, state, and local support for the arts each year only add up to less than $3 billion. That equals a consistent 8 to 1 investment on the tax dollars invested in the arts. This study defies all opponents of publicly funded arts programs and their claims that it is “wasted tax dollars,” and gives the taxpayer something to compare to our city’s current plans which seem to be taking in much more money than they will put out for some time into the future

Also, unlike most other urban centers of comparable or larger size, Fort Wayne does not have a municipal arts commission. An arts commission would be far different from Arts United, the much-overused regional arts council that the city has consistently leaned on over its 53 years of operation as providing for nearly all the support of its arts and culture, through the generous support of individuals in the region, and the Indiana Arts Commission. Arts United’s mission is to provide arts and culture to the whole region of northeastern Indiana. The city government has used this as a way of not backing the arts on the municipal level. Any research into municipal art commissions will show, time after time, their success in cities varying in size like Memphis, Kansas City, Madison, Los Angeles, and New York City.

A program like this in Fort Wayne would have so much potential to call upon. Some of Fort Wayne’s obvious attributes include 84 city parks ripe with space for public art, many large, gorgeous, unused industrial buildings scattered throughout the near downtown area, the rich and varied immigrant cultures in the southern parts of the city, the many already existing visual, theatrical, and musical organizations throughout the city, and the multiple universities and colleges which call Fort Wayne their home. Not to mention our underestimated geographical position in the middle of multiple large metropolitan areas. The overlooked, huge, potential cultural tourist market of Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Columbus, etc. is literally sitting at Fort Wayne’s fingertips; we just need to give the people something interesting to do in our city.

All of these examples, with the addition of local creative achievements, create an undeniable case in support for the arts and the need for a municipal effort to expand them. This would not just be an expansion of the city’s art museum, or the giving of small artist’s grants. If this program would be taken seriously, it would assist the already successful creative programs and organizations ranging from the schools, to the many advertising and fashion firms, publications, performance spaces, and all of the individuals that make them successful.

The contemporary arts market is made up of some of the most powerful and influential people on the planet today. By keeping ourselves out of this market, we as a city are asking to be ignored by them. This will continue to affect our job market, our miserable student retention rate, our city’s tax revenue, and the possibilities of revitalizing our downtown. The adoption of more progressive municipal policies toward the arts would not only link our city to this market, but allow us shine as bright or brighter than Marfa, that little city that Donald Judd saw potential in years ago.

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