Arts, Economy, & Jackson Hole, Wyoming

3245664647_47644fe9caMemorial Weekend Monday as I write this.  Earlier today I took a walk around town.  It was an extremely pleasant walk because I was able to stroll easily around the Town Square, able to find a bench to sit on, able to browse lazily in a few shops.  It was mellow out there.

It’s not supposed to be this mellow in Jackson Hole on Memorial Day.  Earlier in the weekend, a friend emailed me to find out what was happening in the arts over the holiday.  My answer was….not much.  No big parties or receptions.  No extravaganzas; I wasn’t even certain all the galleries would be open.

Our galleries are gasping for breath.  I’ve posted an idea about window art being utilized to fill and brighten empty storefronts; sent a letter to the editor at the Jackson Hole News & Guide that has yet to appear.   Which is o.k., because we’ve got some mega-issues going on with our revised Comprehensive Plan.

We need some stop gap action, though; simple, non-political gestures to shore us all up while the economy writhes and we search for a livable future for Jackson.  Our Center for the Arts needs a loan, galleries have closed, artists are scrambling. Artists are leaving, too. Comprehensive Plans include internal solutions, solutions that don’t have to do with sketching out a building, but that include using our hearts, minds and space in the most giving ways.

Ok, enough.   In the end, Jackson’s future is about how we decide to act in this community.

Earlier this spring Bruce Richardson, Chair of the Wyoming Arts Council, spoke on the subject of the importance of arts to our economy.   Richardson, a board member of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, takes the elusive, often seemingly quirky and odd aspects of art, and boils it all down to sensibility. Here’s Richardson’s essay, taken from the Wyoming Arts Council Blog. Note his point about the number of people working in the arts in Montana.


Arts Mean Business
By Bruce Richardson

I am here to talk about the ordinariness of arts and why include them in job bills and economic development. Simply put, arts are business and the arts business, both for-profit and non-profit, is a substantial part of the Wyoming economy.

People tend to think of art as odd and special, a separate, realm of elevated, difficult and unusual activities done by talented, but eccentric, flaky people. People remember Beethoven’s genius and bad temper, Vincent Van Gogh’s ear-chopping, and think of starving writers not paying the rent (as in the musical Rent).

In fact, most art workers are pretty regular people. They take and sell photos, repair instruments, plan buildings, design websites, make and sell jewelry, build hand-crafted furniture, teach guitar, fiddle, oboe, make and market sculpting tools, sculpt antlers into beautiful objects and sell them over the web, frame pictures, paint portraits, play Mexican dance music at your wedding, do entertaining and uplifting concerts, make fine pottery, do leathercraft, sell paintings in a downtown gallery and design your building.

All of these are businesses in Wyoming. The owners rent or own property, buy supplies, pay insurance and taxes, pay salaries, buy groceries and furniture and participate in the local economy just as do the owners and employees of manufacturing companies or coal companies.

So the arts portion of the stimulus bill makes good sense. The grants that will go out in Wyoming must be used to preserve significant jobs in non-profit arts organizations facing cutbacks. As reported in The Casper Journal, arts organizations such as the Symphony and Nicolaysen Art Museum have suffered from decreases in their endowments, donations and fund-raising.

The Arts are taking an especially big hit as philanthropy moves their diminished resources to others areas. Layoffs and canceled programs are a likely result that can hit small towns as well as large. We want to see the robust Oyster Ridge Music Festival in Kemmerer or the Basin Art Center continue to thrive. In the performing arts, a cancelled concert is similar to a layoff. Musicians lose work and money, the audience loses a program, and the organization loses the ticket and sponsorship income.

The small stimulus allotments contemplated by the Wyoming Arts Council will be out there fast and function as a short-term bridge to preserve jobs in the arts. The program will not remove all the threats to jobs, but it is timely, targeted and temporary.

Some may be surprised how many people in Wyoming make their living from the arts. In Sheridan there are 1,123 people (5.8% of the labor force) working in the creative, arts-based economy according to a recent, very careful study, “Tradition, Expression and Recognition: Creative Opportunities in the New West.” Stuart Rosenfeld, the author, gets his data from on-the-ground counts that find the self-employed and others not listed on the standard sources. He also found a cluster of leather and saddle artisans.

The study (available from the Center for Vital Communities in Sheridan) is of significance to the whole state and our efforts to increase economic diversity and attract top creative talent. There is much here already that we can nurture.

For example, the arts economy in Jackson, according to a recent study by Americans for the Arts (Arts and Prosperity III), is one of the largest in the nation. While the study, using Dunn and Bradstreet lists, misses much of the activity, it does allow comparisons and they are staggering. Jackson has ten times more arts spending per-capita than Boulder, Colorado, and twenty times more than Boise, Idaho, both places that promote themselves as arts centers. Cody, not included in the study, is probably not far behind Jackson, and clusters of activity can be found in many Wyoming communities, including Casper.

This matches national trends. Rosenfeld found that the arts economy in Arkansas was the state’s third largest employer and that in Montana, astoundingly, there were more people working in the arts than in the energy industry. It’s no surprise then that arts councils are often part of state offices of economic development, as is the case in Louisiana and Connecticut and that many towns actively recruit artists and promote themselves as arts destinations. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a decaying manufacturing city has made a huge comeback by stressing music, pottery and food. Each night the downtown swarms with young shoppers and music lovers having a good time and spending money.

We know that appealing towns have lots of arts and that arts draw people and businesses. We also know that arts are fun, that they give pleasure and meaning, that strong art lifts the soul and unclutters the mind.


Leave a Reply