Illustration by Federico Goldstein.
Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report called ””Sustaining Connections”–”Work, Play, Community””–designed to give insight into the health of American community and economic health in the arts. That fact is, in part, why the NEA is investing an additional $86 million to support, in many cases, the work of organizations that involve participation in the arts and which can connect with and benefit from community in a variety of ways.
This study, and the economic benefits that comes with it, has led some forward-thinking small businesses to reach out to the creative community.
Near the Arkansas River, the Schnitzer Steel Industries center offers artistic classes for employees and visitors in an effort to grow its downtown business.
“We started a lot of our classes when we first moved here eight years ago,” says Karen Amundson, director of education at Schnitzer. “We were trying to help move people out of a ‘retail farm’ atmosphere where they worked and then came to a place to eat or sit down and eat.”
The center rents out time on its stage and select speakers. It hosts support groups for employees with developmental disabilities. The center is also a sponsor of the Barnes Theatre’s collaboration with the Market Street Community Art Project, which engages working artists from around the city with homeless folks at two Market Street drop-in centers to produce pieces for the theater.
Amundson is involved in the discussions to bring professional writers and artists into Schnitzer’s work spaces, working with membership committees, and looking at ways of tying art to philanthropy.
And Schnitzer was part of the formation of the Market Street Culture District, an effort to merge community culture with the economic future of the downtown.
There is, obviously, also the creative arts. The Schnitzer facility is already a center for music, with various music artists performing in their facilities and numerous artists working in their creative studios.
“I believe that being able to support your business by being in the arts is really important to this community,” Amundson says. “Our most successful people, I believe, are the ones who are the best artists in the city.”
The cool thing is that they are not priced out of urban living–teens are working in music, workers in interior design. “People are still experiencing downtown as a creative place,” she says.
And that is because there is no choice. Studios are too expensive. Requests for city permits for projects–the necessities of a functioning business–is high, and that deters studios from building downtown.
“Not that anybody does it, but other creative places get into little dilemmas because nobody wants to do it anymore,” Amundson says. “There’s only so much money to go around in the city. They can’t afford it. They can’t even go to anywhere cheaper.”
She is hopeful. She believes that arts organizations can not only build businesses that thrive on the association with the arts, but that they can come together to leverage the support of the larger economy.
“I think we are on the verge of having a lot of really cool things,” she says. “And that has everything to do with collaboration. There’s a need and there’s a need to collaborate. It just takes time.”