Know a rock band that wants to be famous? What’s the most important city? New York, London or Los Angeles? Fat chance. The place to break out is Austin, Texas. It became that way because of South by Southwest. That just-completed festival of film, technology, and music has turned Austin into one of the world’s cultural capitals. Let that sink in. A city in Texas, of all places, is one of the cultural capitals of the world.
Kansas City can learn a lot from Austin. Arts matter — and not simply because of airy, aesthetic concerns. Arts matter because they make money. Art is good for business.
The Austin festival has music, film, and interactive. It all adds up to big bucks. In 2013, according to the festival website, it booked more than 11,000 hotel reservations, totaling 50,000-plus room nights. All told, 300,000 participants pumped more than $200 million into Austin’s economy.
Compare that to Kansas City’s arts haul. According to ArtsKC, this town’s cultural and arts organizations account for about $273 million per year in direct revenue. In other words, it takes KC nearly a year to bring in what Austin makes in three weeks.
But the financial impact of the arts is far greater than the cash inflow. Cultural events can change the way a city is perceived. Last year’s South by Southwest received some 458 million mentions in broadcast, print, and online media, creating a powerful effect on Austin’s fiscal well-being.
It works like this. Say Garmin wants to hire a new graduate from Stanford or Berkeley. Of course the salary and benefits package matter. But those young recruits also want to know that they will be living in a city with a rich cultural life.
Here’s the funny part. They might never even go to the opera or ballet, or visit the museum. They just want to know that they’ll have those opportunities. The same goes for an entrepreneur wanting to start a new business, or a multinational corporation seeking to expand. People are more likely to bring new businesses to a town if there’s a great arts scene.
KC, of course, has a few festivals of our own. Though not on the scale of Austin — almost nothing is — our festivals are nonetheless vital to our cultural well-being. A couple of big ones are coming next month. Middle of the Map (sponsored by Ink, a Star publication) takes place in April. “Middle” features three components: music April 3-5 with more than 120 local and national acts; The Forum, a TED-like conference of ideas, April 10-11; and film, April 16-20. On cinema, we also have the Kansas City Film Fest, April 5-13.
Ensuring these events and their supporting communities continue to thrive is a simple affair. Take part. Buy from local artists. Get tickets to see the ballet, symphony, the Rep. Attend exhibits at the Nelson-Atkins. Buy a pass to Middle of the Map and KC Film Fest. Pay cover charges to see live bands and splurge on their merchandise. Certainly, nothing has given Kansas City more international arts attention than the Kauffman Center, but having the facility isn’t enough. We have to support the events held there.
We should do all this because the arts, like nothing else, can make life worth living. But we should also do it because patronizing the arts is an investment in the city’s economic well-being. The arts make money for everyone. Art creates jobs — even if your job isn’t in the arts.