This past Thursday night, some of Savannah’s most passionate arts patrons, from a wide variety of local cultural groups and a diverse range of backgrounds, gathered to hear a speech by Randy Cohen, researcher with the nonprofit Americans for the Arts.
Cohen’s organization seeks to raise the profile of arts in American life and education, with a special focus on evangelizing the value of the arts to the economy in a rapidly changing global business climate.
Some attendees acknowledged the “preaching to the choir” aspect of the occasion, since no one at the event needed convincing as to the value of the arts.
But here’s the thing: If your goal is to make that choir bigger, then preaching to them might be exactly what you need to do.
I remember not so very long ago, as do others I’ve spoken to on this topic, when the only real cultural games in this town were the Telfair, the Savannah Symphony and to a lesser extent City Lights Theatre. If you were to “preach to the choir” back then, that would have been said choral ensemble, virtually in its entirety.
The Savannah Music Festival, known as Savannah Onstage back then, was but a minnow in a very small pond. For a look at just how exponentially that event has taken off, read music editor Jim Reed’s in-depth article on page 13.
These days things are entirely different. Not to knock the established veteran groups in town, but the recent influx of new blood in the local arts community -- and it must be said, competent new blood -- has completely changed the game.
At the meeting Thursday night, there were representatives from some relatively new kids on the block, such as Savannah Danse Theatre, Latin American Service Organization, the Savannah Children’s Choir and Savannah Actors Theatre, to name but a few.
These newer players on Savannah’s cultural scene are hungry, and ready to get to work taking this city to the next level, arts-and-business-wise.
I’ve already gone over the numbers in a previous column, so I won’t risk boring you with too much more data from Americans for the Arts’ huge “Arts and Economic Prosperity” study, which is all available at www.artsusa.org/.
But suffice it to say that compared to other markets its size, Savannah is doing substantially better in terms of the amount of money and jobs generated by cultural groups and their audiences.
One particularly eye-popping number relates to the amount of money that out-of-towners spend per head while experiencing Savannah’s cultural events, which in this context do not refer to for-profit events such as traveling road shows or Hollywood films.
Visitors to Savannah are apparently spending a total of $67 per person when attending local cultural events -- that would include dinner, drinks, souvenirs, etc., and that’s not including the cost of admission. This per capita number is substantially larger than other areas our size reported in the study.
The downside to this great news is: If we’re doing so well with that number, what key numbers are left to improve? There’s certainly a consensus that Savannah has a ways to go before we break through to that next level of the arts’ economic impact, as cities like Austin, Texas, or Charleston, S.C., have been able to do.
If we’re kicking so much butt on per capita dollars, well... what are we doing wrong?
I spoke at length with Randy Cohen on this issue after his speech, and he said the answer has two parts, both revolving around volume:
1) Savannah must provide a greater number and variety of cultural offerings than it currently does.
2) The metro area itself simply must get bigger.
That second solution isn’t what everybody wants to hear, with all our current concerns about rampant development and its impact on traffic and the environment and overall quality of life here.
But you know, despite all our complaints about how quickly it’s growing, Savannah remains a pretty tiny, out-of-the-way place, comparatively speaking. Very few key destination cities in the U.S. are as small in population as we are.
We all love this city’s languid, off-the-beaten-path character and wouldn’t want it to change substantially. But the growth is coming, like it or not. And culture is our ace in the hole, our best chance to make sure that inevitable growth is the kind of growth we all can live with.
Rick Winger of the Savannah Economic Development Authority says his secret to attracting new investment here is simple: “If we can get someone to visit here once, they’ll see for themselves that this is a city alive with arts and music.”
We must always keep in mind that Savannah’s “strong, flexible, vibrant arts sector,” as Mayor Otis Johnson put it Thursday night, is not only what attracts tourists, but what attracts a high-quality work force and keeps it here.
And Mama didn’t raise no dummy -- that means more readers for Connect, too!
E-mail Jim Morekis at