Boise State University

Mark Rudin: Investing in the arts is good business

An unidentified student removes the cast from a bronze-and-aluminum pour in Boise State sculpture professor Francis Fox’s art sculpture class.
An unidentified student removes the cast from a bronze-and-aluminum pour in Boise State sculpture professor Francis Fox’s art sculpture class. Boise State University

The contribution that scientific research makes to economic development has been well-documented. Research leads to jobs and patents, which in turn lead to new business startups, improved products and better quality of life, among other things. What may be less obvious is the additional contribution the arts, and artists, make to the bottom line.

By the late 19th century, city leaders had come to understand that a thriving arts community made cities scarred by the Industrial Revolution more attractive to residents and potential investors. In 1899, the Atlantic Monthly noted that wealthy residents were more likely to spend their money in the cities where it was earned if those places invested in making themselves more appealing. The following century saw the creative-city movement aimed at inviting and retaining artists in an effort to boost innovation and attract new industry.

A recent report from Americans for the Arts concluded that “communities that invest in the arts reap the additional benefits of jobs, economic growth, and a quality of life that positions those communities to compete in our 21st century creative economy.” Investment also can help sway a company to base its operations in a city like Boise based on the availability, quality and diversity of cultural opportunities.

In “Rise of the Creative Class: How Creativity is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life,” Richard Florida, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, made an additional case for the arts as a critical component of economic growth where artists are innovators and community assets.

As the largest employers of visual and performing artists outside of entertainment capitals like Hollywood and New York City, universities have long been at the heart of this movement. While we also are responsible for training a new generation of creative workers, there is little empirical evidence showing exactly how universities are supporting artist-driven economic development or how we can improve our role as anchors in that field.

Now Boise State faculty members Leslie Durham, of the Department of Theatre Arts, and Amanda Ashley, of the School of Public Service, are developing a research-based impact assessment tool that universities can use to determine just that. The tool is based on a study that includes program and budgetary analyses of Boise State, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and the University of Nevada, Reno.

Their project, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is titled “Productive Synergies: Universities and Regional Creative Clusters in the Intermountain West.” They are looking at how universities could affect the career trajectories of working artists and at ways to better leverage and invest in the incubation of artistic innovation and economic development in their communities.

The study ties in nicely with NEA chair Jane Chu’s signature leadership initiative, tagged “Creativity Connects,” which looks at how the arts connect with other industries. But the study will look beyond that at issues such as workforce development and community building.

More than 50 percent of working artists in the Treasure Valley are entrepreneurs who are typically not included in economic-impact studies. Many working artists cobble together a career, perhaps doing graphic design work for one company and set design for another, while running an arts studio of their own. By narrowing our focus to only individual, established institutions like the Boise Art Museum, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Opera Idaho or the Cabin, we may be missing what it really means to be a working artist and what our regional cultural ecology and economy looks like.

The arts also support creative placemaking, a term referring to creation of a brand for a city or region. In a report for the NEA, the University of Minnesota’s Ann Markusen, considered the guru of creative placemaking, noted that art “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate.”

This ties into Durham and Ashley’s final point, arts as community development. A prime example of this is the Vista Neighborhood project. Volunteers from across organizations are coming together to find ways to revitalize the area south of the Boise Train Depot along Vista Avenue. The city of Boise is releasing its first citywide cultural arts plan. Ashley notes that arts have successfully been employed to prop up neighborhoods, provide social justice and serve as an equity builder.

As more data becomes available, the university’s role will be to find ways to better prepare our next generation of artists to be successful, not only as artists, but as entrepreneurs and economic drivers.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.