What comes to mind when you read the words, “Economic Development?” The term often conjures a specific connotation in our minds, and we may begin to think of a new box store opening up in town or of a distribution center settling nearby. Of course, those investments are great opportunities for our communities, but what about alternate routes to economic development? What other sectors or opportunities might our communities embrace? Well today, we’ll explore one sector specifically relevant to rural communities: The Arts!
While the arts are well known for their significant contribution to our quality of life, recent data also draw our attention to this important industry’s economic strength. According to a 2019 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, “The arts and cultural sector contributed $804.2 billion or 4.3 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016.” That report goes on to share that over five million Americans are employed by the arts and culture sector, cumulatively earning roughly $380 billion in 2016.
Folks in the Commonwealth will find the perfect illustration of the arts’ economic influence by looking to Virginia’s own Staunton City and the Blackfriars’ Playhouse. Originally formed in 1988 as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, this traveling company’s popularity ultimately resulted in the construction of the Blackfriars’ Playhouse,” the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse.” Built in 2001, with assistance from donors and local governments, this theater and its company continue to draw tourism and financial growth. In fact, according to Virginia Business Magazine, “Annual tourism expenditures in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley city have risen by 91 percent, or about $24.6 million since the $3.7 million Blackfriars Playhouse was erected in 2001.”
Rural communities are well-placed to succeed in the arts economy because each county owns a distinct story, a specific asset, or colorful culture. Explaining this point, a Pew Charitable Trusts article shares the advice of some community leaders, “To be successful, they say, a rural community must figure out what makes it unique — a gorgeous natural landscape that can serve as the backdrop for a writers’ retreat, an old opera house, or a tradition of local storytelling — and capitalize on that.”
Where else do we see such capitalization? Well, take a look at this article about Thomas, West Virginia, a former coal town that changed direction to become known for its thriving music industry. Or examine the story of The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail and its multi-million-dollar impact upon the economy of Southwest Virginia.
To be sure, rural regions like Southwest Virginia and communities like Thomas, West Virginia, aren’t alone in achieving arts-driven growth. According to a National Governors Association report on Rural Prosperity Through the Arts & Creative Sector, “In 2015, arts and cultural production contributed $67.5 billion to the economies of states in which 30 percent or more of the population lives in rural areas…Arts and cultural production in rural states employed nearly 628,500 workers.”
These numbers make clear that the arts and culture economy is becoming a significant player in many rural areas, and that an increasing number of localities are sharing their heritage through this industry. While there is no single road leading toward a diverse and resilient economy, these intriguing statistics and examples spark thought about the place of the arts in Virginia’s rural communities and warrant exploration as to how localities can make the most of their unique assets.