Berkshire Business Outlook | Julia Dixon: The creative economy is paying off handsomely

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In the Berkshires, the creative economy has come a long way in a short time. The term "creative economy" has existed in our lexicon only since the 1990s and it has been used widely in the region for just over a decade.

Between 2005 and 2007 Berkshire County experienced what some called a cultural renaissance, an explosion of investment in creative assets. During that time, the Colonial and Mahaiwe theaters reopened after significant renovations; Barrington Stage Company relocated from Sheffield to Pittsfield, DownStreet Art was launched in North Adams and the Berkshire Creative Economy Council was born.

It marked a period of cultural growth that galvanized the community around the creative economy, leading to the revitalization of properties, neighborhoods, and attitudes. It also created a critical mass of workers at creative economy-related enterprises that numbered 6,100 at the time, and connected them to important opportunities.

This activity had, and continues to have, huge impacts on the Berkshires' overall economy. Not only do the creative industries improve the quality of life in the Berkshires, they create jobs, products and services for our community's residents and visitors.

In 2012, arts and cultural nonprofits in the Berkshires alone generated an economic impact of $164 million and supported nearly 3,000 jobs, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Creative Community Development at Williams College. That year, the region's 14 largest nonprofits attracted over a million visitors to the Berkshires, the majority of whom came from outside the county. These visitors contributed another $97.5 million to the local economy.

Today, these 14 organizations account for $131 million in revenue, which is nearly $50 million more than the arts and cultural nonprofit sector as a whole generated five years ago.

This incredible growth rate reflects an increased capacity that has been made possible by the refurbishing of aging buildings that house these esteemed organizations. Massachusetts Cultural Council's Cultural Facilities Fund not only addresses the financing challenge these large capital projects face, but infuses the economy with additional dollars both during and after construction.

In 2017, the Mass. Cultural Council reported that 25,513 architects, engineers, contractors, and technicians had been hired for Cultural Facilities Fund projects statewide since 2007. Those who received funds expect these projects to create 2,168 permanent jobs.

"The Cultural Facilities Fund is proud to support projects that create jobs and income, revitalize commercial areas, and draw visitors," said Greg Liakos, Mass. Cultural Council's Communications Director. "Mass. Cultural Council and MassDevelopment work together to manage this program and are committed to building a central place for culture in the everyday lives of communities across Berkshire County."

In total, over $14 million in capital and technical assistance grants have been distributed to 98 projects at 39 nonprofit and municipal venues in the Berkshires.

But grantees throughout Massachusetts only anticipate spending $114 million on future capital projects according to Cultural Facilities Fund annual reports. That is the lowest amount projected since 2010.

FROM THE OUTSIDE IN

With cultural nonprofits now healthy and vibrant, arts leaders are now hoping to leverage their robust programs and updated facilities to impact the economy from the outside in.

At the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, a cultural anchor that recently completed a $170 million expansion and renovation project, director Olivier Meslay believes the future of the creative economy in the Berkshires lies in the environment, both the cultural and physical ones.

"The nature surrounding us is a real benefit," Meslay said.

The Clark continues to attract visitors and academics thanks to its world-class collection and exhibition program, but Meslay is looking to create an experience for guests that extends beyond his buildings' walls. Partnerships like ArtCountry, a website and discount ticket program featuring five cultural venues in the northern Berkshires and southern Vermont are enabling organizations to work together to have a greater economic impact throughout the county extend the length of a cultural visitor's stay.

"ArtCountry is at the core of our philosophy: to attract not only visitors but to transform their perception of the area to encourage relocation," explained Meslay. "To attract more people to settle you need to create an identity for the area."

Liana Toscanini, the founder and executive director of the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires in Great Barrington, sees the need and benefit of broader identity-building and collaboration within the creative economy.

"Cultural districts and heritage trails anchored by cultural nonprofits are huge," said Toscanini, who is part of a group of organizations and businesses in Great Barrington exploring the possibility of establishing a cultural district in the town. "The district would help us do a better job of cross-promoting and marketing around our cultural assets."

These kinds of collaborations and partnerships are particularly important for smaller arts businesses and cultural organizations.

Of the approximately 125 arts and cultural nonprofits in Berkshire County, 80 percent have annual revenues under $250,000, according to Toscanini.

"There are lots of small guys," she said.

Lenox-based WAM Theatre is one of those small venues, but it has experienced a 23 percent growth rate since 2016 without investing in physical assets.

"Quite a few donors have upped their contributions this year," said Kristen van Ginhoven, WAM's artistic director. "So many people are funding what they believe in."

With a lean part-time staff and low overhead, WAM Theatre relies on its mission-based work and relationships with other organizations to reach cultural visitors and local residents. Although collaboration with others can be difficult, van Ginhoven thinks that task is important both financially and philosophically.

"It provides us with more exposure, more resources, and longer jobs for theater artists," she said. "It just makes sense."

A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia Dixon is chairwoman of the North Adams Public Art Commission, and a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist.


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