Victoria Panella Bourns: The economics of supporting Utah culture, museums and artists

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young Ballet West members perform 'Quintessence' as part of the Youth America Grand Prix student ballet scholarship auditions at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

Last week, I watched the prowess of Ballet West, orchestrated by Lillian Casscells and choreographed by their exceptional dancers — all performing from the safety of their own homes. I was in a meeting where I heard Provo singer Alex Boyé talk about driving to senior living facilities and fans’ homes to offer curbside concerts.

All around Utah, artists, museums and arts organizations have pivoted as they bring their creativity to the public. Cache Theatre Company held an online karaoke night; Southern Utah Museum of Art offers Wonder Wednesdays, where you can pick up supplies for take-and-make art projects. Epicenter, in Green River, Utah, has partnered with local businesses and Joe’s Valley Festival to create #SWELLofsupport, where patrons can purchase gift cards to buy a future experience.

Utah’s cultural community is currently showing their resilience by rehearsing, performing and giving back to their community — in front of all of our eyes.

In the middle of a global economic crisis, Utah’s cultural community is doing what they always do. They are bringing us joy.

Now more than ever, we need the joy of art. We need creativity. We need to come together virtually as our world faces the devastating virus that will define our times.

In the midst of everything, it’s easy for creative workers and those who support them to feel discouraged. There’s an uncertain timeline until we can return to our quiet concert halls, our dark theaters and our empty museum galleries. Which is why Gov. Gary Herbert’s recommendation last week was so simple — and so simply necessary.

Those who are financially able, the governor said, can support our arts and cultural community by renewing season subscriptions and annual memberships early. Buy art and gift certificates to give as presents.

Why does this kind of financial support matter? Because in Utah, cultural sector jobs are economically significant jobs. Consider the numbers.

In Utah, more than 6,500 culture-related businesses employ nearly 40,000 people. Arts and cultural nonprofit businesses contribute $6.2 billion to the state’s economy annually.

Arts and business leaders underscore our state’s remarkable quality-of-life statistics over and over again: Utahns are known for our love of performing and creating art. On top of that, we have earned a national reputation for our love of attending live performances. Utahns love to be in the room where the art happens.

The state’s cultural nonprofit businesses shut down early in the COVID-19 era and will be among the last to reopen because of the cost of social distancing. It simply doesn’t make financial sense to open a 1,000-seat house for only 200 socially distanced patrons.

Here’s the backstory: Even the most successful nonprofit cultural organizations survive, in the best of times, on slender margins. Ticket proceeds for events, performances and exhibitions simply do not pay for all of a nonprofit business’s overhead.

All of the state’s name-brand, world-class arts organizations — companies that have earned national reputations for their artistic quality and high marks for their economic prowess, as well as every community theater, choir and heritage museum — rely on private and public contributions to make up the difference.

And yet, our cultural nonprofits make major injections to Utah’s economy. For example: Last year, the Sundance Film Festival generated an economic impact of $182.5 million for the state. Every year, the Utah Shakespeare Festival generates more than $35 million in economic impact for Cedar City and surrounding areas.

When I get discouraged, I find hope in the messages the Utah Division of Arts & Museums is receiving daily from our cultural partners around the state.

As they fight to survive, I see artists, arts organizations and museum managers displaying the kind of creative problem-solving skills they teach in their thriving educational programs. “Now we get to test out those skills ourselves,” says Victoria Lyons of Bad Dog Arts, a nonprofit known for its innovative visual arts programs. “We are being tested on a daily basis to imagine how to do things differently, dare to take risks and try something new, to create new structures and ways of operating.”

Following the governor’s example, here’s a personal call to action to everybody who cares about arts and museums, and the dollars arts and museum lovers invest in Utah’s economy. We can make a difference by donating at coronavirus.utah.gov/help.

Many galleries and artists are selling their work online. We can make a difference by renewing memberships, buying subscriptions and buying art now. That support now will mean that our state’s artists — at the right time — will be able to leave their living rooms and fill our stages again, and our state’s museums will once again welcome us as eager visitors.

Victoria Panella Bourns

Victoria Panella Bourns is the director of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, previously directed Salt Lake County’s Zoo Arts and Parks Program and serves on regional and national arts boards. She earned a bachelor’s degree in modern dance and a master’s degree in arts administration from the University of Utah.