Next week, the Arkansas Arts Council – where I’ve been proud to serve as director for almost three years now will convene its biennial Artlinks conference in downtown Fayetteville. The conference, opening October 6 at the newly (and quite stylishly) re-imagined Graduate Fayetteville Hotel, will, as in years past, draw an eclectic mix of arts administrators, educators, visual artists, writers, poets, performers, and elected officials to discuss the state of the arts in Arkansas. Given the exponential growth in Northwest Arkansas, and the region’s heavy investment in the arts in recent years, it’s inevitable that we will spend a lot of time pondering the state of Arkansas’s creative economy.
People like me, who straddle (sometimes uncomfortably) the line between art programs and arts policy, strive to find a common language through which we can talk to legislators and local leaders about the power of the arts in their community. In recent years, the common language has been economics—the raw macroeconomic power of a sector that includes everything from bladesmithing to slam poetry, modern dance to traditional doll-making, baroque opera to deep Delta blues. In a marketplace of creativity where every taste is represented, stressing the universal economic benefits of a strong arts community has become the universal justification for public and private investments in the arts.
And yet, for so many people who form the actual backbone of our state’s arts and culture, listening to me give a TED Talk flogging “The Promise of the Creative Economy” is about as exciting as listening to an audiobook on how to watch paint dry. It’s not that creative people don’t appreciate the economic power of the arts. Rather, it is that they recognize a strong creative economy is but one part of a wider creative community.
And what do we know about Arkansas’s creative communities? While Northwest Arkansas is a dynamic laboratory for public and private arts investment, communities across the state are also learning the value of the arts in the lives of their citizens.
As noted in research published by Americans for the Arts (AFTA), roughly three-fourths of Americans derive “pure pleasure” from experiencing art in their communities. Approximately the same percentage of respondents, across all demographic and economic categories, believe the arts unite their communities by helping cultivate understanding of other cultures.
As part of their Home Region plan to enhance livability and cultural amenities, the Walton Family Foundation has invested hundreds of millions in a world class arts infrastructure for Northwestern Arkansas, anchored in the north by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Fayetteville’s Walton Arts Center to the south. These large institutions, built through far-sighted partnership, form the backbone of the region’s arts and cultural tourism.
In El Dorado, a city faced with declining population and limited arts and entertainment amenities, a coalition of elected officials, corporate leadership and creatives made a bid to remake itself as the “Festival City of the South.” Building on its existing assets—a vibrant historic Main Street district, its beloved South Arkansas Arts Center, and Murphy USA’s corporate loyalty to its hometown—El Dorado opened Phase I of the Murphy Arts District in October 2017. Its new outdoor amphitheater hosts large festivals and events for over 7,000; next door, a 2,500-plus seat entertainment venue now draws world class performers.
El Dorado and Northwest Arkansas are certainly the most dramatic examples of how the arts can serve as the glue that binds and builds strong creative communities. But across Arkansas, we are also learning that a vibrant creative economy requires more than just bricks and mortar investment. It requires creatives—artists, performers and writers who can live and work in their community, making a living that pays the bills and supports their continued creativity.
With its landmark $120 million gift to establish a School of Art at the University of Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation has paved the way for new generations of Arkansas artists to create and contribute. But those graduates will find themselves in a state and region where artists, like so many workers who skew toward the lower income brackets, still struggle to afford housing or workspace. In 2017 the Walton Family Foundation enlisted Minnesota-based nonprofit developer Artspace to develop a regional plan for affordable live/work projects that will keep more of the creative workforce in the Northwest corridor. The plan calls for four separate sites in Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville, each providing amenities tailored to the unique character of the city’s artists and their needs. A similar project is now in development in Central Arkansas, supported by the Windgate Foundation in Little Rock.
There remain other daunting challenges to the arts in Arkansas. Visual and performing arts continue to be a privilege, not a right in many of the state’s schools, and our rural counties are often left out of the benefits of art programs. These challenges, and how we meet them, will take center stage at Artlinks next week. And though some of us non-economists find the metrics and statistics of the creative economy a bit dry, the future of Arkansas’s creative communities remains one of promise and opportunity.
Patrick Ralston is the director of the Arkansas Arts Council. Opinions expressed in op-eds are those of the author.