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Current Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee has always been considered an unusual politician. The relic of the now-defunct moderate republican, the former Rhode Islander chose to leave his former party and run as an independent in his home state. With his election in 2011, he inherited a twelve percent unemployment rate, a nearly half a billion dollar budget shortfall, and a small city in bankruptcy.
Rhode Island needed a new approach.
Three years later, Chafee has decided to look at new ways to revive Rhode Island. With its traditional manufacturing economy still lagging, it is struggling to feel more of the so-called recovery, in spite of a lower unemployment rate. This week he announced a new initiative that he says is the key to Rhode Island’s economic future and a safe bet: funding the arts.
He is pushing for a voter referendum, which would authorize $35 million dollars in grants for the arts community. This wouldn’t be small grants for local artists, though that will happen as well if his request for an additional $1 million dollars from the general fund is approved. The new investment will go towards facilities and businesses that already bring in more than $600 million dollars to the state’s economy annually. Museums, theaters, and historic sites could all apply for the grants and would have to contribute some level of matching funding.
The idea even has economic data to back it up.
The New England Foundation of the Arts estimated that in 2009, the creative community provided $673 million dollars to the Rhode Island economy, including 8,000 jobs. Those jobs included everyone from actors on stage to those who sold tickets at museums. This doesn’t include the indirect economic activity of patrons hiring babysitters, eating at the restaurants before a show, or staying at a local hotel. It is estimated that for every $1 dollar spent by an arts organization resulted in $2.10 in sales for local businesses.
Rhode Island isn’t alone in including the creative community in economic planning.
In 2012, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder proposed including an investment into the state’s arts and culture. After realizing that Michigan’s creative community had contributed nearly a half a billion dollars and more than 15,000 jobs to the economy, the investment in the arts is seen as a crucial part of a sound economic plan. Since then, Michigan has more than quadrupled its arts funding to an estimated $7 million dollars. Now, more than $2 billion dollars is spent on Michigan’s art and culture annually, more than many other recreational activities combined.
The investment can also be a boon for other sectors of the economy.
St. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior recently wrote that traditional cities for artists, such as New York or San Francisco, have become too expensive for creative people, catering to only those that are well-funded or well-connected. In the end, artistic expression is being stifled and creativity is being killed. “The ‘creative class,’” she writes, “is a frozen archetype – one that does not boost the economy of global cities, as urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues, but is a product of their takeover by elites.” She suggests that artists do what they do best and think out of the box and leave the overpriced former incubators for cheaper terrain.
Places like Detroit.
The largest city to declare bankruptcy in U.S. history, Detroit has been the poster child for economic destruction and political corruption. While there is still much debate over the handling of the city’s woes, including a proposed sale of the city’s much cherished art collection, a small group of local artists and activists are doing their own part to aid in the recovery. In 2012, Write A House was formed for the sole purpose of providing Detroit based writers a two year residency – with a twist. They have secured three houses in one of Detroit’s many abandoned neighborhoods. One was donated and the other two were bought for $1,000 dollars each, a feat not difficult to do with the thousands of boarded up homes. Through donations and grants, they are refurbishing each of the homes and then giving them to writers.
Yes, this writer residency includes an actual residence.
The writer is allowed to stay for free for two years. If they fulfill their obligations, which include engaging with the local literary community and contributing to the organization’s blog, Write a House will hand over the deed. In the end, the writer will have a (hopefully) finished project, a new home, and be a key part at revitalizing the city. As a homeowner, the writer will then be responsible for all related insurance and taxes, currently estimated at about $500 dollars per month.
The hope is that these artists will remain in the communities, possibly have families and continue to contribute to the city. Their efforts will spawn new businesses, help established industries and contribute to the funding that provides health and education.
In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee plans to have his proposal on the fall ballot. As many states look outside to lure businesses to them, Chafee seems to realize what they need is right in their front yard. “It’s already here. It’s all around us in this state,” he told the Associated Press. “It just needs a little recognition, a little help. When you look at what the arts can offer the economy, the community, our quality of life, it makes a lot of sense.”
In other words, investing in creative ways in creative people is the new trickle up economics.