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Business of the Arts: Arts tourism adds color to local economy

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The arts are often praised as a conduit for beauty, communication and connection. But local arts administrators say they’re also an economic draw.

Leslie Forrester, executive director of Springfield Regional Arts Council, said arts organizations took a major hit during the pandemic, with many losing an entire performance season in 2020 and reducing capacity in 2021 and beyond.

But Forrester said arts attendance and tourism are skyrocketing this season.

“We’re seeing strong numbers,” she said.

Forrester is once again coordinating the Arts & Economic Prosperity study through national advocacy organization Americans for the Arts, with results to be released in spring 2023. SRAC volunteers can be found canvassing arts events, clipboards in hand, to ask audience members about their spending related to that outing.

The study was last conducted in 2015, when it found the local nonprofit arts and culture sector provided an economic impact of $26.9 million while supporting 1,065 full-time jobs.

It remains to be seen how well the arts have recovered overall, but some area agencies report robust attendance.

Recovery in progress
The Gillioz Center for Arts and Entertainment seats up to 1,300 for musical acts. Executive Director Geoff Steele keeps a running tally of where his visitors hail from. In 2019, audience members came from 1,071 zip codes, 42 states and four foreign countries.

Then, chaos erupted.

“The numbers from 2020, 2021, aren’t real numbers,” Steele said. “2020 didn’t exist. We were basically closed for 19 months, and we got to reopen in the third week of July 2021.”

But 2022 data stands to outpace 2019’s. Through the first week of October, The Gillioz has had visitors from 913 ZIP codes, 41 states and six foreign countries.

Steele said 63% of audience members are from outside of Greene County, and they tell him their primary reason for being in Springfield is to see the show.

“For me, the reality is it’s an enormous economic incubator,” he said.

And when The Gillioz does well, the businesses around it also thrive, Steele said.

“We have restaurants call us to say, ‘What do your numbers look like, because that’s going to determine how many servers I schedule, how many cooks I have on the line,” he said.

That 2015 study found arts patrons spent $32 per person above the cost of a ticket for an outing.

Steele said he can remember in 2006 when it was impossible to walk by an open business near the downtown square, where the theater is located. That has changed.

“The only reason 1,000 people are on Park Central East on a Tuesday night is because I turned my marquee on,” he said.

At the 2,200-seat Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts, Josh Inmon, associate director, has seen a comeback. A recent performance of “The Book of Mormon” had strong attendance for all three shows.

Of course, that brief run can’t compare to the two weeks of “Wicked” in 2016 or “The Lion King” in 2019, with each bringing 33,000 people and nearly $10 million into the local economy, according to Inmon.

“For a town of our size, when we look at the local arts organizations that we have, we’re so fortunate to have this facility to be able to bring in larger-scale touring shows,” Inmon said. “This is definitely an arts community.”

Signs indicate the community has reach. Forrester said Artsfest on Historic Walnut Street, held May 7-8, drew 25,000 attendees, a third of them regional travelers. Ozarks Lyric Opera reported 38% of its audience for its Sept. 30-Oct. 1 performances of “Sweet Louisa” – about 100 people – were from outside of Springfield, and the Springfield Ballet Inc. has had 1,476 attendees from outside the city since 2018.

Open to all
Forrester noted on average, a third of arts audiences come from beyond the Queen City, and the majority say they would go to another community for cultural opportunities if Springfield couldn’t provide them.

There is something distinctive about a cultural tourist, Forrester said.

“Cultural tourists come to have authentic local experiences wherever they’re going,” she said. “They spend more time, more money, and they spend it in local places. Wherever we as locals hang out, that’s where cultural tourists want to be.”

She said the data can be thin, especially for nonticketed events.

“We’ll see a chunk of people that come through for (First Friday) Art Walk and say, ‘We were in town and we heard about this cool event,’” she said.

It’s essential to find an on-ramp like ArtWalk to draw people in, Forrester said. From there, visitors are happy to be pointed toward a theater, gallery event or festival.

“Once we get them in, we can get them connected wherever they want,” she said. “They’re looking for those special experiences that are different than they can find anywhere else.”

Coming for festivities
Two arts events coincided the weekend of Sept. 10-11: the brand-new MidxMidwst art and music festival, recently renamed Overlay, and the 26th annual Japanese Fall Festival, sponsored by the Springfield Sister Cities Association.

MidxMidwst attracted a modest crowd its first time out in the downtown area. The $60 ticket provided access to live mural painting and music, as well as temporary arts installations and small-stage events. Organizer Meg Wagler would not provide figures, but she called it a successful debut.

“Attendance was low in our first year, but even with that, we brought in a good percentage of regional traffic,” Wagler said.

“Someone said they came up from Albuquerque, [New Mexico]. They had really awesome things to say about it being an unexpected location. That’s part of the reason they were willing to make the drive. They wanted to get in on it before it was the next hot thing.”

Wagler said she wanted to encourage tourism in general with the event.

“To spark new interest in our area and show off the city in a way that showcases a voice that we love – that’s the point,” she said.

At the Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden, the Japanese Fall Festival drew a record crowd, said Andy Drennen, board president of Springfield Sister Cities.

In 2021, 10,000 people attended, but 2022 attendance was in the range of 13,000-15,000. Performers came from all over the country and Japan.

In a sense, the festival offered a chance for locals to experience arts tourism without leaving home.

“This was a chance to get out and experience culture that we’re bringing to people who might not have the means to travel themselves,” Drennen said.


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