On Wednesday, the ground beneath the Springville Center for the Arts shifted.
That day, we learned that the small arts center headquartered in a former Baptist church in an idyllic village in southern Erie County had won two major grants totaling more than $800,000 from New York State.
The grants, which will help the center expand and renovate its headquarters and turn another building into a multi-use art space, are a major milestone in the extraordinary story of the SCA. The modern mission of the SCA was essentially set in 1995, when Walmart opened a store just outside of Springville over the objections of residents and began to drain activity and vitality from the village's once-bustling downtown core.
By 2007, when the SCA purchased the church with $100,000 worth of community donations, it had already made a significant impact on Springville residents. But since then, under the direction of its visionary young director Seth Wochensky, it has transformed itself into the de facto nexus for the surrounding community. When I visited the center back in April, it was clear that its programs had transformed many lives in and around the village.
The grants, awarded through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Regional Economic Council initiative, will allow the center to hit fast-forward on its laudable plan to infuse new life and vitality into the Springville community and the surrounding rural areas. But perhaps even more importantly, they signal a major philosophical shift in the way public officials view the connection between community building (i.e. culture) and economic prosperity. It's important to note that the grants came from outside the realm of “arts” funding, which is generally funneled in much smaller amounts through the New York State Council on the Arts.
In the old way of thinking, governors and legislators have tended to view public investment in preservation and the arts as just so many ways to drain money from the budget. For decades, cultural advocates in struggling cities have been singing the same sad song to the same deaf ears: We are not extra. We deserve investment. Encourage us, and we will help you build a brighter future.
In case after case, when elected officials have actually listened to the argument and ignored the inevitable cynics who will always see the arts as frivolous and expendable, astounding things have followed. In Denver, former Mayor John Hickenlooper and other public officials listened, and it is now largely agreed upon in Denver that the city's publicly funded cultural renaissance was a major factor in the stunning economic growth it has accomplished over the past two decades. Same story in Pittsburgh. Same story in Portland.
But in Buffalo, as in so many other ways, we've been lagging behind the times. These grants to the Springville Center for the Arts, though they hardly rate in the context of the nearly $1 billion of grants awarded earlier this week or the promised $1 billion for Buffalo, are a signal that the old way of thinking is beginning to crumble.
And it's about time.
Though we still need better local data, report after report across the country – including two major ones put together by the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices – conclude that investment in the arts yields major, manifold returns.
To which the only sane response from someone who has honestly explored the evidence must be: Duh. We can thank the Springville Center for the Arts – and now New York State – for adding to the towering pile of proof on that subject. It's past time for everyone else to get on board.