So art is pretty and inspiring and all that, but let's cut to the chase: Why should the community of taxpayers who are not directly involved in the arts support them?
A prevailing viewpoint is that public funds should be dedicated primarily to costs related to the maintenance and improvement of a region's infrastructure – roads, bridges, waste management, emergency services and the like – and secondarily to attracting or retaining businesses, jobs, people and generating new external funding. Within that view, how does support of the arts contribute?
First, while the arts are "not-for-profit," they are not revenue-neutral. They are revenue-positive in the same way any (most) for-profit businesses are: They generate paychecks; purchase supplies, materials and services from other businesses; and, like any sports venue, they generate revenue for many other adjacent businesses, like restaurants, bars and parking lots. When they work together, as in the Allentown Art Festival, or First Friday Gallery Walk, or Beyond/In Western New York, the economic impact on all the businesses in each respective region is positive. Their activity, week in and week out, means revenue for businesses that could not have generated it otherwise, and they have expanded with it, and they have come to count heavily on it.
Arts activity consistently brings people to places in ways that make fertile ground for subsequent business development. Perhaps the most significant (forgotten) example of this is the Tri-Main Center on Main Street. In that huge hulk of a building, nothing generated interest through foot traffic more than Buffalo Arts Studio – a deliberate first major tenant for developer Elgin Wolfe, who used the "arts first" approach successfully in Canada – which was subsequently joined by Hallwalls, and then Just Buffalo Literary Center. Thousands of people were brought there at little or no cost to Wolfe, which he clearly understood, and within a comparatively short time, the building was filled with all manner of tenants, bringing jobs and all the benefits of a building that remains full today.
There is no question at all that the approach of "leading with the arts" is also demonstrating enormous success at Canalside, which recently announced that fully three times the number of people visited there than did a short three years ago – from 150,000 to nearly 500,000. And beyond some minor infrastructure improvement, no significant building has taken place. No retail development, no matter how large, or with whatever cache, could have made that kind of progress that quickly.
What is critical to businesses considering opening in Buffalo at Canalside is that hundreds of thousands of people already go there – there's no need for them to promote themselves to nearly the extent they would have in the absence of the arts activity. It's fertile ground now, wide open, well-traveled and with endless potential. Primarily because of the activity of arts organizations that are only partially supported by public funds.
It is cliché that young people are leaving Buffalo in droves. While the truth behind the numbers is much more subtle than that, the fact is that in national study after national study, and in city study after city study, cultural opportunities for young people is right behind job opportunities as a reason for staying in or moving to a region. Music, art, performance and public space to participate in these all are critical considerations to people when deciding on a place to live. Because of the historic public support of the arts over the years, Western New York has an incredible array of offerings, which has been noted in a variety of national business and travel magazines – and which are read and used by businesspeople in decision-making roles regarding moving into or expanding within a region. Why should major national business magazines care about the arts offerings of cities around the country? Because it matters to a company's bottom line.
Finally, the arts are not, and should never be, limited to artists and arts lovers. Creativity exists in everything that people do. It takes huge amounts of imagination and critical thinking to run a business (I grew up in a family business), or to create and manage a manufacturing process, or design a new widget, or promote different living environments. Art and creative thought is sought and appreciated by people who must turn thinking into action, and action into profit.
The creative thinker – Steve Jobs, for example, and a thousand others like him – is the one who succeeds where others don't, who expands when others stay static and who drives change toward the new, and the untried, and the next best thing – or the next best place. And the key – perhaps the only – place where creativity, business, art, education, youth and experience come together is the public library. It is my absolute conviction that the Central Library should be rapidly developed in this regard. Its funding is critical to the cross-sector interactions that will continue to drive Buffalo's reimagining.
Support for the arts is not simply support for strange poetry readings (I'm a poet), or inscrutable plays, or art that "my kid could have done." It is support for creative thinking – done by all sectors and all people (even politicians) – and forward motion. In my view, it is no more optional than funding roads and bridges. And the taxpayer doesn't need to "use" the arts any more than he or she needs to use every road or bridge or park supported by their taxes. The arts are equally integral to place, and can't – shouldn't – be separated from it.