Almost from our city’s beginnings, Durham leaders embraced the importance of the arts. Philanthropy of its earliest business giants and civic support helped make this city, as the 2008 book “Brighter Leaves” put it, more than “just another tobacco town.”
Indeed, one of the most prominent buildings in the early years of the 20th century was the Academy of Music, which the city helped to finance. The second building, after the first burned in 1909 after only seven years, was extolled by its architect. “It so far eclipses anything in this state, that I have no place in mind which gives you an idea of how fine it will be... it will be a gem,” he was quoted as saying.
Only a couple decades later, the city built the Durham Auditorium, later named the Carolina Theatre. Its refurbishment and restoration in the 1980s in many ways marked the debut of the modern arts and cultural explosion downtown, and helped mark historic preservation as a key ingredient of the unfolding revitalization.
Our long and vibrant history of supporting the arts has been more than an aesthetic contribution to our civic life, an important report released last week affirmed. It has been an economic growth tool that has rewarded taxpayers’ investments of public money.
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Here’s how the report, “Americans for the Arts: Arts and Economic Prosperity” summarizes the impact:
“The nonprofit arts and culture segment is a significant industry in Durham County – one that generates $154.2 million in total economic activity. This spending – $104.6 million by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and an additional $49.6 million in event-related spending by their audiences – supports 5,722 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $132.5 million in household income to local residents, and delivers $13.4 million in local and state government revenue.
“This economic impact study sends a strong signal that when we support the arts, we not only enhance our quality of life but we also invest in Durham County’s economic well- being.”
No silver lining comes without a cloud. Some downtown arts organizations share the concern of many businesses and residents that the very success of our downtown revitalization may impact some of its pioneering participants. Renee Leverty, one of the founders of downtown’s Pleiades Gallery worries about rising rental rates. “We don’t know how long we will be able to stay downtown,” she told The Herald-Sun’s Cliff Bellamy after the report’s release.
Clearly, we need to worry about those concerns. But the report made clear that investment by philanthropists, businesses and governments have made Durham, in the words of State Sen. Mike Woodard, “the cultural capital of North Carolina.”
That’s a designation of which we should be proud, and from which we profit.