Panel of local experts discuss the value of the arts for lifestyle and the economy


Not only are the arts vital to healthy living, they are an economic engine that deserve more support at the local, state and federal levels.

That was the conclusion of a panel of government and industry experts as well as a sympathetic audience that gathered Thursday, October 26th, at Hancock Hall in Danbury to discuss the findings of a recent survey that shows arts and supporting organizations in Fairfield County generate millions of dollars in annual spending.

The panel featured state Rep. Stephen Harding, R-107; Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker; Hal Kurfehs, vice president at Coldwell Banker Commercial; Mary Larew, director of the Danbury Music Centre; and Brian Vernon, dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts at Western Connecticut State University.

“We often forget how much of an element art can be to business,” Harding said. “The Legislature needs to invest more in the arts. It’s more of a business than people think.”

The discussion, sponsored by the Cultural Commission of Western Connecticut, was prompted by an Arts and Economic Prosperity study conducted by Americans for the Arts that showed the arts industry annually generates $235.2 million in economic development for Fairfield County.

Knickerbocker cited the sculpture gardens that have been created each of the past two years in front of Bethel's town hall and library as an example of the value of arts to the community.

“In a town the size of Bethel, we know there is an economic impact from the arts but we don’t do polling and it’s hard to measure,” Knickerbocker said. “The sculpture gardens make the community more progressive and hip, if I can use that term, and it signifies to millennials that this is not some backward town. It’s progressive and somewhere they might want to live.”

Kurfehs noted that quality-of-life issues are important to business, including those looking to relocate.

“When you define art and culture, it’s about creativity and innovation, travel, philosophy — these are all things that make life interesting,” Kurfehs said. “If you have businesses looking to relocate here, your employees will be happy if the area has the ambiance they are looking for.”

Vernon pointed out that education and experience in the arts don’t always lead to jobs in the arts.

“My sister danced with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and later became a physical therapist,” Vernon said. “It’s interesting to think about how that kinesthetic awareness and understanding of the body can turn into a career in physical therapy.”

He also echoed a universal theme at the gathering — that many aspects of art are valuable beyond financial rewards.

“Music transforms us,” Vernon said. “It doesn’t matter how old or young we are. We all love music. You can’t measure that value.”

Larew admitted frustration with continuing questions about the value of art.

“I really wish we could get to the point that the arts are recognized as an important industry and start with what we want to accomplish artistically or culturally,” Larew said. “We don’t ask whether restaurants are important, or utilities.”

The Music Centre was founded in 1935, Larew noted, as a place residents could continue to perform the musical arts they learned as students.

Every week hundreds of people travel to downtown Danbury for rehearsals and performances, she said, making this arts organization one of the catalysts of the local economy.

“Where do we want our community to go?” Larew asked. “What makes Downtown Danbury special?”

Lisa Scails, director of the Cultural Alliance, pointed to additional findings from the Arts and Economic Prosperity survey: In Fairfield County, the arts industry supports 6,789 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $142.3 million in household income to local residents, and delivers $20.6 million in local and state government revenue.

“We say the arts are resilient, but people who love the arts have to remain vigilant,” Scails said. “In my opinion, in this region, we could be more vigilant.”

The complete Arts & Economic Prosperity (V) report is posted on the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut's web site, www.artswesternct.org For more information, to volunteer or to donate, call (203) 798 0760 or visit www.artswesternct.org



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