Allied Arts last week released a 6-month progress report on the Imagine Chattanooga 2020 strategic planning initiative for arts and culture. The news, though extremely interim, is good. When the plan was first released in January, it had a bit of a blind-men-describing-elephant feel to it: a really big animal with some interesting features but difficult to see in its entirety.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Chattanooga's big community plans are usually either highly detailed and timelined, like the 21st Century Waterfront Plan, which was like a forced march to meet an aggressive deadline, or Vision2000 and ReVision2000, which were deliberately long on vision and intended to draw implementers to them who would work out the details.
Imagine Chattanooga 2020 – co-created by 400 people in a year-long process – seemed somewhere in between those two: part inspirational vision and part organizational plan, with a mandate for Allied Arts to convene the implementers that would bring it to fruition. The plan is essentially set of long-term goals for how the community can best be sustained by the arts, including elements aiming at supporting the working artists who are the ultimate source of those community-enhancing arts.
Now, after six months of implementation, details are beginning to emerge. Some projects are nearing completion, while others are still in development. Allied Arts executive director Dan Bowers called the efforts to date "the first mile of a marathon." Getting his JFK on, he added, "It's not about the arts, it's about what the arts can do for the community."
The full progress report is available at imaginechattanooga2020.org. Here are some highlights of efforts underway in the four focus areas of the plan.
Diversity – This summer, Allied Arts expects to begin a pilot program to make the arts more accessible to underserved populations. From a pool of $40,000, grants of up to $3,000 will be available to neighborhoods, municipalities and non-profits for visual and performance arts. Within the next 12 months, Allied Arts also plans to develop a network of neighborhood-based "Arts Ambassadors," to begin working with local churches, especially youth programs, to bring arts to a broader audience, and to develop an inventory or cultural diversity in the community as well as strategies to celebrate what is found.
Economic Development – The plan also looks for increasing the already known cold cash impact of the arts, including contributing to business expansion and relocation, attracting arts and culture conventions and expanding cultural tourism, which is already a major focus for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Working closely with the Chattanooga Times Free Press and other partners, Allied Arts anticipates the fall launch of a comprehensive calendar, website and weekly print publication promoting arts activities to locals and tourists.
Downtown – The January plan included a downtown "cultural hub" to provide studio, gallery, rehearsal, classroom and office space for artists and arts organizations in a variety of disciplines. According to Maury Nicely, who chairs the downtown effort, the group is actively engaged in an "inventorying process to determine supply and demand," what artists and arts groups need and what spaces might serve. "We've already identified a number of spaces we think could serve as a hub. In six months we hope to be on the verge of implementing."
Education – With Allied Arts' "Imagine!" program sending every second, third and fourth grader in Hamilton County public schools to a performance, a task force is fundraising to expand that program, first to all students from kindergarten to fifth grade, then to include grades six through eight, and finally to establish sustainable funding sources. There's a lot of advocacy work to be done in this area since, as Children's Discovery Museum director Henry Schulson put it, "The funding for arts education is below 'low' in this community. That has to change. It can only change if we have a really strong advocacy effort to show the importance of arts in the community."
Since January, Allied Arts has also participated in a national study of the economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture organizations, sponsored by Americans for the Arts. Even during the recession in 2010, the ripple effect of what arts organizations spend in the community and what audiences spend on arts and culture contributed nearly $106 million to the local economy, including over $12 million to state and local governments through taxes. Above and beyond tickets, Hamilton County residents spend an average of $23.61 per person when attending arts and culture events, and non-residents spend an average of $41.39.
The study doesn't include or compare the impact of commercial arts like movies, but surely much more of a dollar spent on the tangible creative work of our neighbors stays in Chattanooga. Every time a piece of art generates controversy or someone says, "My three-year old could do that," we get distracted from the real point. Arts and culture make life better, and we need more of them. Supporting the arts means supporting ourselves. Let's get on with it.