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Editorial: Great Falls can and should do better at supporting its arts

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With news that a certain local venue for live shows is closing soon, I won’t say which one but I’ll say that it has one of the best outdoor settings in the city, certain realities have started setting in.

Our local culture still has a strong corps of creative artists, musicians, actors, photographers, videographers, movie directors and more. I’m not going to call them to task. They’re facing enough of a struggle as it is to put food on the table, if we’re being honest with ourselves.

No, what I’m about to say calls everyone else to task.

Great Falls can do better at promoting our arts of all kind, and if you keep reading I’ll list reasons why it should be a bigger priority than it is at the given moment.

Firstly, let’s talk about how art can help improve the economy, shall we?

According to the website Americans For The Arts, across the US, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year—$63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences.

Let’s look for a moment at a town with roughly the same population as Great Falls — Flagstaff, Ariz.

Great Falls has roughly 59,400 people whereas Flagstaff has roughly 65,000 within the city. There’s a bit more in the incorporated metropolitan area, but for relativity’s sake we won’t take that into consideration here.

According to the most recent Arts and Economic Prosperity study, the art and culture industry in Flagstaff has supported 2,497 full-time jobs, has generated $55.6 million in resident household income, and has generated $3.8 million for the local government.

Now, if you look at the Flagstaff budget, which you can find here, as opposed to the Great Falls budget, which you can find here, one of the first things that stuck out to me is that whereas Flagstaff reports making $447,768 on what it calls “art and science,” Great Falls doesn’t even have a category to estimate what the income from art related ventures is.

You have to wonder why that is? Not only that, but the art and science fund in Flagstaff has reported a 7 percent increase from 2013 to 2014. Why doesn’t Great Falls take a serious look into investing in the arts? What’s keeping us from doing this?

santa cruz artsIt takes investing money to make any kind of real money, and that might be the key problem holding our city back from taking advantage of the chance to using the arts to generate income. However, if there was a renewed focus by our city to make it a goal in the future, then eventually we could maybe see a bigger piece of that pie, or any kind of piece, at this point.

Without making this all about government, however, I’d also like to talk about why we as people need to do more to support the arts here.

Quick, think of the last art exhibit you saw. When was it? Who was on display? What type of art was it? Where did you go?

If you have trouble answering those questions, take solace in the fact that you’re probably not alone. However, that’s not a good excuse.

For some reason, and I’ve talked about this with several friends, it seems as if there are only a certain number of people in Great Falls who go to art openings, concerts, comedy shows, poetry slams, book readings, theater plays, etc. The rest of the population, for some reason, chooses not to go to any of these.

I know we can do better. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t go out to any kinds of shows or events, why not? What would it take for you to start going out to more things in the community? What’s keeping you from doing it now?

These are the types of conversations we need to be having. a more engaged community is a more connected community, and when a portion of our fine city isn’t engaging in local events, then people are less likely to feel like they “belong” to that said community.

I’ve seen it happen more than once. I meet someone new who moves here, we hang out once or twice, and before long they develop a pattern in their routines that doesn’t involve attending cultural events here. Before too long they become complacent and feel like they’d rather live somewhere else.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with living like that, make no mistake. However, studies time and again show that people who listen to music, look at art, attend live shows are smarter, healthier and in general live better lives.

paint brushes 2One such study, from the University of Arkansas, found that, “Watching movies of “Hamlet” and “A Christmas Carol” could not account for the increase in knowledge experienced by students who attended live performances of the plays. Students who attended live performances of the play also scored higher on the study’s tolerance measure than the control group by a moderately large margin and were better able to recognize and appreciate what other people think and feel.”

Studies can only show so much, however. The best way to find out for yourself how a live event can benefit you is to go to one and find out on your own.

The thing is, though, Great Falls needs better venues. If you’re looking for a great touring band, for instance, there are several places to go, but not as many as there could be.

If you’re looking for a live theater show, there’s also several places to catch some good ones, but again, there could be more.

An easy way to fix that solution is to vocalize your demand for them. The more people who speak up, the more legitimate the consideration becomes.

Finally, let’s talk about cost, shall we?

A lot of people say they’d love to go to more shows, but they don’t want to spend $20 to see a band, a play or a musical performance.

The problem with that mindset, though, is that by saying that you’re reducing the importance for culture in your life, voluntarily.

You know all those benefits I listed above? You can’t take advantage of them if you tell yourself it’s not worth it.

Nobody would say, “well, I’d like to eat three meals a day, but I don’t want to spend $20 to do it,” unless they were seriously strapped financially.

Art might not be as crucial to survival as food and shelter, but it’s more important than many of us realize.

This article from the Huffington Post explains it further, saying “Exposure to and understanding of the arts is key to developing qualities of responsible citizenship.”

It continues, “The arts enable us to imagine the unimaginable, and to connect us to the past, the present, and the future, sometimes simultaneously.”

Now, are some cultural events overpriced? You bet. Sometimes I want to go see a show but look at the pricetag myself and have to say, “well, I can’t make it this time because I can’t afford it.”

Considering the fact that the median income in Great Falls is relatively low compared to the rest of the country, $46,216 compared to $51,939, and it’s somewhat understandable that you can’t afford to spend money on non-absolutely essential things.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do better. We can’t make it a priority to reach out and try something new.

In conclusion, I believe the Great Falls art and culture scene is still incredibly strong and diverse. We’re going to need some changes, and some more support from regular people, but it can be done. You can make a difference, even if you don’t think you can.

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