Panel: Arts a 'goldmine' to Juneau's economy

Group debates the economic importance of art

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The arts can be a beacon of hope in a time of regional, national and global economic uncertainty, Juneau Arts and Humanities Council executive director Nancy DeCherney said Tuesday night during a public forum on the role culture plays in the economic health of Southeast Alaska.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"I really believe that the arts are the goldmine that we need in this community," she said. "It's a renewable resource."

Perseverance Theatre and the JAHC hosted a forum titled "Juneau Creative Economy" at the Douglas theater to discuss and debate the economic importance the arts play in the community, region and state. An audience discussion occurred after a panel addressed the issue, which included elected officials and representatives of the arts community.

"I think that as our economy in Juneau is struggling in losing jobs in other areas, it is the arts that we can build up," DeCherney said. "Really, I think the arts community is rich here but we're not being well used, I guess, or not capitalized to the degree that we could be."

According to figures presented at the forum, the arts generate a large amount of revenue both directly and indirectly in the city, state and nation. According to a recent report by the MacArthur Foundation, the nation's nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity annually.

According to the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts, as of January 2008 there were 1,536 arts-related businesses in Alaska, employing nearly 5,000 workers.

Panel member Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said the state economy is heading into one of its more difficult times in recent memory.

"It's the first time in 22 years ... Alaska is expecting to lose jobs," he said. "It's the first time in over two decades."

Elton said these uncertain economic times have created a new paradigm for artists and nonprofits trying to acquire resources and funding. He said many endowments have lost large sums of money, and government funding for the arts often slows in difficult economic times.

The discussion touched on the fact that Juneau's arts scene was able to weather the economic storm in the 1980s when Alaska's oil revenues plummeted and state funding dried up. Elton said these are different times, because now the national and global economies are feeling the pinch as well.

"I fully agree that imagination and big plans ought not be stymied by the circumstances, I'm just one of those people who right now is trending more toward the doom and gloom," he said.

Panelist Bill Legere, manager at the radio station KTOO, said that people in the artistic and creative fields help add vitality to the community.

"Too many conversations in Alaska ... start with money," he said. "And I think this conversation starts best with ideas and the thinking of the community's aspirations of what we want to be like and how we want people to see us."

Panelist Jeff Bush, a Juneau Assembly member, said the arts help define society and plays an important economic role in the community. However, he said the arts scene is often run by artists that don't know how to successfully market themselves to the community.

"Especially in a time like we live in today, with an economy that is slipping, (the arts scene is) going to need to ... change it's focus ... and think creatively to find ways to sell itself to the public and to funding agencies," he said.

Panalist Art Roche, the new artistic director at Perseverence Theatre, said the local theater company is a good example of an artistic organization that can thrive in Juneau.

"In our planning process, what we're discussing among ourselves is how to make the most of our national stature at home and the most of our homegrown nature outside," he said. "There's a duality to the theatre that is part of our identity."

Roche said the theater has a professional staff of nine people, a 13-person board of directors, and employs around 150 artists and artisans per year. The company has a nearly $1 million annual budget, which 90 percent of is spent in Juneau. He said about half of the funding is brought in by donors outside of Juneau and the state.

Panelists said the economic value of arts and culture goes beyond generating revenue.

"It's generally accepted that advantages like museums, theaters, orchestras, that sort of thing, is easier for employers, such as government and corporations, to recruit employees to come and work in a place like Juneau," Roche said.

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