The arts can revitalize a city if they work together. 

The Arts Can Make a Difference

Can the arts help a city's economy? Ellen Solms thinks so. She's executive director of Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts Inc. "It's not a new idea," she says. "Cities have been using cultural development for quite awhile and very successfully." The Lincoln Center is the premiere example: "It's hard to imagine New York's Upper West Side without this anchor and stimulant over the past 30 years." In Philadelphia, the Avenue of the Arts began in the early 1980s. "But it really took the vision and advocacy of our mayor, Ed Rendell, to make it a reality," she says. When Rendell ran for office in 1991, he surveyed voters' interest in three activities often used to spur economic development: sports stadiums, casinos and the arts. The first two were given a significant thumbs-down, by almost 2-to-1 margins. Surprisingly, the arts were favored by roughly 3-to-1. Rendell saw a clear direction. As Richmond's arts organizations plan for a performing arts complex downtown, they can learn some important lessons from other cities where the arts have collaborated to achieve results beyond what they could do individually. Getting dozens of arts and cultural entities to work together was no small task, Solms says. "Collaboration doesn't come easily to arts organizations." she observes. "Arts groups are competitive in terms of funding" Her organization had to work to overcome inherent distrust. "There was a fair amount of skepticism, especially in the media, about what this really meant." People now realize, Solms says, how shining a spotlight on the Avenue of the Arts really upgrades the cultural community and its image as a whole. In the long run, it makes it easier for people to raise money. Of course, Philadelphia is a big city with lots of people to be audiences for these organizations. But Philadelphia's success is not merely a product of population. Attitude and leadership made the biggest difference in getting things done. "We made marketing a top priority," says Solms. "Now the concept of the Avenue of the Arts is widely accepted with the public, with the business community, with the government community and with the media. No one thinks this is a bad idea." Philadelphia is a model that we've been thinking about in Cincinnati, where we have the oldest art museum west of the Alleghenies, one of America's oldest symphonies, the largest annual choral festival in the Western Hemisphere, and America's second-oldest opera company. Nevertheless, Cincinnati is still seeking the best way to enable all its arts to work together on an effective and continuous basis. The past decade had some positive signs. A recent regional cultural planning process completed the task of evaluating Greater Cincinnati's eight-county community — its diversity, richness, needs, contributions to quality of life and to the economy — clearly defining the arts and culture in all their diversity, from large to small organizations and identifying the roles they play. Focus groups and committee work proved to be a catalyst for emerging coalitions and collaboration. For instance, a grant from the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts enabled the area's theaters to form the League of Cincinnati Theatres, an umbrella organization finding ways to cultivate audiences and enable organizations to function more efficiently. Last June, for the first time ever, nearly a dozen theaters — from Equity companies to small groups paying actors and other talent very modestly — held unified auditions for their 2000-2001 seasons. The University of Cincinnati campus boasts several startling architectural projects designed by renowned architects from Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman to Henry Cobb and Frank Gehry. The university has invited other organizations with new architecture in their short-term vision to join in promoting its efforts. These include projects such as the Contemporary Arts Center, about to break ground for Zaha Hadid's unusual design for its new facility, the first major museum in America designed by a woman. This consortium is raising the awareness of Cincinnati as a city of art, culture and distinctive architecture through media and public relations. For five years, the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau has produced a regional marketing campaign with a selection of arts and cultural organizations. These campaigns have grown in terms of participation and scope. Research confirms the value of the arts as a draw to a destination, and Cincinnati is beginning to make this work. Colleagues within the arts organization respect and learn from one another. Public relations professionals and marketing directors for many of Cincinnati's arts organizations gather regularly over lunch to share programs and ideas, to consider collaborative efforts and to spark media interest. Their collective voice gets more attention than that of any single organization. The light's beginning to dawn on some of the region's leaders, and the time seems ripe to create an alliance or council to unite the arts and cultural community. A maestro to conduct this renaissance has yet to come forward. Cincinnati has no leader like Ed Rendell with a vision of how the arts can make a difference to the city as a whole. We need one voice to speak to the value and importance of the arts and to weave together the quilt of many arts activities. In Philadelphia, more than 1.1 million people annually attend performances or events along the Avenue of the Arts, generating more than $150 million for the city. Every city ought be interested in fostering its own version of this kind of impact on the quality of life for its residents and the bottom line of its economy. A bumper sticker summed it up: "Change is great. You go first." Joan Kaup, is vice president for tourism and membership with the Greater Cincinnati Convention, Rick Pender is arts and entertainment editor for CityBeat, Cincinnati's alternative newsweekly. They'll be part of the panel discussion, "Revitalizing Downtown — Are the Arts Enough?" at the University of Richmond on Monday evening, Feb. 5, at 7:30 p.m. at the Modlin Center for the Arts. Tickets are free but required. Call 289-8980 to reserve a ticket. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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