(Newport Daily News, By Joe Baker)
The arts are a vibrant part of the state’s economy, accounting for 4.3 percent of all Rhode Island businesses. But in Newport County, the slice of the economic pie is even bigger: About 357 companies, or 5.8 percent of all Newport County businesses, are arts-related, employing 1,200 people.
This economic activity often is overlooked in the larger discussion of creating jobs and bolstering the state’s economy, speakers agreed during a forum Friday morning at Trinity Church’s Honyman Hall. The event was co-sponsored by the Newport County Chamber of Commerce and the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Newport County.
“I think it is very important that we recognize the arts not only as a means through which our life experiences are enriched and deepened, but also as a critical economic engine,” Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, told about 40 people gathered for the forum.
And it’s not surprising that Newport County has a large thriving arts community, Newport Folk Festival producer Jay Sweet said during a panel discussion that was part of the event. Newport is a brand that draws people even before they know what’s here, he said.
“We sell out before we even announce anyone is playing,” Sweet said of the folk festival over the past few years. “People are buying tickets for the name Newport Folk Festival.
“A lot of this is brand equity,” he said. “You become synonymous with your community.”
Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the Newport Opera House and Performing Arts Center, said that once the Opera House reopens after extensive renovations, organizers hope it will become a draw that will further enhance the Newport cultural experience. Built in 1867, the Opera House is one of only 10 theaters in the country from that era still standing.
“When the Opera House was built, Washington Square was the heart of Newport and there was a vitality in Washington Square,” Nienhouse said. “We anticipate it will have that same impact (when it reopens), expanding the vitality in the area.”
Events like the folk and jazz festivals are huge events that draw tens of thousands of people to the area — two-thirds of ticket buyers come from Massachusetts, Sweet said. The second-highest number is people from Brooklyn, N.Y., and the third-highest is from outside the United States.
Organizations like newportFILM offer regularly scheduled events that cater more to locals. But that makes them no less important, speakers said.
NewportFILM was started five years ago after the demise of the weeklong Newport International Film Festival in 2009, after an 11-year run.
“We made a very conscious decision to not be a weeklong film festival,” newportFILM executive director Terri Conners said during the forum. “There was no community attachment to that old festival.”
And it is attachment to the community that breathes life into an organization, said Pebbles Wadsworth, president of the Jamestown Arts Center, and gives local residents a stake in the health of the arts.
“We need to get every level of the community involved,” Wadsworth said. “The arts are very often perceived as elitist. It is very, very important … to get every level of the community feeling as if they are included in what they see, and that it’s economic development.”
People who have taken a beginners ceramics class at the arts center, for example, want to continue their classes and are then directed to local artisans who offer the next level of training, Wadsworth said.
“We are supporting our local artists simply by existing,” she said.
Several years ago, Sweet said he recognized that the folk festival needed to attract a younger audience to continue being relevant. In five years, the average age of the audience has gone from 46 to 23, he said. Reaching out to younger fans is building an audience for the future, he said, and guaranteeing the arts remain a success.
Keynote speaker Lynn Singleton, director of the Providence Performing Arts Center since 1983, said that local arts groups needs to band together to create the Newport brand and that begins — the folk festival notwithstanding — with building a local audience, he said. More than 90 percent of PPAC’s audience — which he said is larger than the Wang Center in Boston — comes from an area within 32 miles of the building.
“Your market is here, so you have to develop this market,” Singleton said.
Even though the folk and jazz festivals may draw people in from outside the area, organizers have tried to increase attendees’ exposure to local arts groups by holding events at Newport venues during the week between festivals, Sweet said.
“The reality is that art is shared common experiences,” Sweet said. “Arts provide shared bonding, and it makes us better people.”