I’m a fortunate community arts executive. I direct an organization, the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham, which supports a vibrant ecosystem in the largest city, and cultural capital, of Alabama. Just a few years ago, in a public gathering, our former governor recognized Birmingham’s cultural sector as the region’s second greatest asset, just behind the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the state’s largest employer with a giant, nationally-recognized network of hospital and healthcare resources.
Birmingham lost one nonprofit contemporary art gallery in the recession; however, I am proud to say most of our organizations are being extremely resourceful at doing more with less. As nonprofits, we’re used to it, right?
And I’ve just received great news: the results of our local Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study show a more than 50 percent increase in annual economic impact from the data collected five years ago. We had an 80 percent survey-return rate from our organizations as compared with the national average of 43 percent. So, our cultural leaders are enthusiastic, capable, and determined to demonstrate our value.
We also have some important and encouraging signs as we move forward. The City of Birmingham is in the process of creating its first comprehensive plan in 50 years, and arts and entertainment tactics have been included in the area of “Prosperity and Opportunity” as well as “Housing, Neighborhoods, and Community Renewal.”
Perhaps even more significant, “Blueprint Birmingham,” a recently published economic-growth-strategy document commissioned by the Birmingham Business Alliance, our regional economic development authority, identifies “Arts, Entertainment, and Tourism” as one of only seven target sectors with the greatest potential for new job creation, retention of existing jobs, and overall wealth creation in the region. This recognition of the cultural sector as an engine for both community and economic development, when coming from unusual suspects, is a sure sign of progress.
With such current-and-promising good news when it comes to the Birmingham story for arts and economic development, why do I feel the need to sleep with one eye open? One reason: our up-and-coming industry (“Blueprint Birmingham” calls us “an emerging sector.”) is still starved for investment.
I’m not talking about the traditional corporate donor, individual patron, and member giving that occur organization-by-organization. (I have a concern that that particular dynamic is already radically changing, for a variety of reasons, and will probably never get us where we want to go anyway.) I’m talking about public and private investment on a sector-wide scale for big and inspirational ideas that comes with expectations of measurable returns. What that hybrid between nonprofit and commercial looks like and how it functions for Birmingham, I haven’t yet figured out, but hopefully the city’s plan, when completed, and “Blueprint Birmingham” might point us in some interesting new directions.
Another concern, when it comes to arts and economic development, is our woeful and slow elimination of arts education in the Birmingham City Schools system. From what I read, the U.S. is now on its third or fourth jobless recovery from economic downturns in the last 20 years. And the jobs we continue to lose are the very jobs for which our industrial-based education system seems to prepare students.
I want Birmingham’s cultural sector to have an increasingly aggressive pattern of economic impact in the future, and for that to happen we need to provide an educational atmosphere of inventiveness and engagement that will prepare our young people for the entrepreneurial job opportunities in creative industries that potentially await them. Happily, the Alliance has begun a substantive, arts-integration artist-residency partnership with our city school system and we’re already seeing some significant results.
So, how do I end my arts and economic development report from Birmingham? On a personal note, I still feel a lot like Rodney Dangerfield: “I don’t get no respect.” I know many of my local peers feel the same.
On the other hand, I use my nagging, outsider sensation to push for a seat at the community table when important conversations and potential opportunities occur. The invisible hat I wear during those occasions is “Economic Developer,” not “Arts Administrator.” That’s the mindset I need to represent my constituents.
And, finally, I do believe our industry sector is making progress and people are taking notice, but I’ve still got that one eye wide open.