SAVANNAH is in the rare and fortunate position of being a very small market that consistently punches well above its weight.
At about 384,000 people in Chatham, Effingham, and Bryan Counties according to 2016 estimates, we are only the 137th largest metropolitan statistical area in the United States.
Savannah barely breaks into the top 100 media markets in the country.
Our main economic and cultural rival, the Charleston metro area, is twice as large. Columbia, S.C., also only two hours away and a place Savannahians rarely think about, is even larger than Charleston, with an 800,000+ person metro area.
Metro Atlanta, the nation’s ninth largest, is over 15 times as large as the Savannah metro area and growing bigger literally every day.
Even Jacksonville, Fla. — a place Savannah tends to look down its collective nose at — is a nearly 1.5 million person market.
Yet parochial as we are, in the Telfair we boast one of the Southeast’s finest art museums. In the Savannah Music Festival we boast a nearly three-week event which brings literally the world’s best performers to town, almost all in intimate venues.
The presence of SCAD has brought a priceless volume of not only cultural cachet, but curious and creative minds to produce and consume that culture.
Thanks to a culturally connected creative class, a small but generous core donor base, and a City government and taxpayers willing to significantly fund the arts, Savannah enjoys a nearly year-round calendar of high-quality performing arts and cultural activity.
(And the City of Savannah is alone among local government entities in paying for events which everyone from everywhere can attend if they choose.)
Many of us — me included — are fond of complaining that “all the big acts” bypass Savannah for Charleston, Jacksonville, Atlanta, etc.
That said, considering the small size of our market, there’s no shortage of quality arts events for locals and visitors to attend, at a generally wide price scale.
Simply put, it’s easy to find cities many times larger than Savannah with nowhere near our cultural and artistic offerings.
It is a thing for which to be very thankful. Unfortunately, it’s also a thing I’m afraid many of us take for granted.
Savannah is a town full of people who like to say they support the arts, but prying their wallets open to actually support the arts can be like pulling teeth.
I often hear local performers and artists express outrage that they’re so often asked to do their art for free, or for very little money, or for “exposure.”
I share their dismay. It’s a real problem for local artists and musicians.
However, many of us, when faced with the prospect of purchasing, say, a $40-50 ticket to see literally the best artists in the world in their particular field, often still won’t buy the ticket.
Hell, many of us, when faced with the prospect of paying a ten-buck cover charge to see three or four great live bands at a local club, even complain about that.
The Savannah Music Festival, for example, brings a roster of artistic talent that is without question at or near the highest level available on the planet, in a fairly broad cross-section of genres.
I often hear complaints about the ticket prices of these performances, the subtext being, “Why aren’t these concerts free? Why should we have to pay to see them?”
Well, here’s an answer: If you don’t want to perform for free, or close to free... why do you assume these artists would?
Some of this attitude of course is due to the fact that we as taxpayers are already helping to fund a huge amount of local cultural events that are 100 percent free to attend.
And we get used to it. Maybe a little too used to it.
But free to attend isn’t the same as free to produce.
Events like the Savannah Jazz Festival and Picnic in the Park, to name but two, get us accustomed to the idea of not having to pay a dime to see great cultural events.
But please keep in mind that none of this is a given. There is no actual reason for Savannah to have such a fertile cultural scene, other than we’ve decided it’s important to us and we want to make it so.
There’s no rule that says the arts need to be publicly funded. Same at the national level, as the current administration seeks to aggressively cut funding to the arts.
As we’ve seen, even our local government can and will seek to cut funding to the arts when push comes to shove.
There are no guarantees unless we make them stick. And that means we may have to occasionally support the arts with more than lip service.