What comes to mind when thinking of our area’s most important economic sectors? Shellfish? Wood products? Tourism? Retirement living? Marijuana? All these contribute to employment, taxes and other social goods, but as a new report makes clear, we too often overlook the arts as a prime source of community vitality and financial wellbeing.
The National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) — housed as Southern Methodist University in Dallas — just computed scores for all the nation’s counties and cities. Its report ranks every county’s relative position on five metrics — arts dollars, arts providers, government support, socio-economic and other leisure characteristics.
The three Lower Columbia River counties estuary are in the top 10 percent of all in the U.S. in terms of this “arts vibrancy” — the strength of our arts sector. Altogether, 12 of Washington 39 counties and 13 of Oregon’s 36 art in the top tier of U.S. “arts counties.”
Pacific County rates better than 88 percent of U.S. counties when it comes to art providers per resident. It ranks better than 99 percent of other counties in terms of arts dollars — things like revenue produced by art-related programs. It is in the 89th percentile for other leisure activities. It ranks at the 53rd percentile for government arts support, but is only in the 21st percentile for its socio-economic health.
Neighboring Wahkiakum County has very similar rankings, with more arts providers per capita than 87 percent of other counties.
Across the river, Clatsop County has more arts providers in comparison to its population than 97 percent of other U.S. counties. It generates more art money per person than 93 percent of other counties. It is below average on only one of NCAR’s five metrics — government support for the arts. NCAR judges Clatsop’s overall socio-economic rank as better than 62 percent of counties. When it comes to the catch-all category of “other leisure,” Clatsop is better off than 98 percent of counties — and is especially strong in terms of restaurants and hotels.
Income producer for rural areas
In fact, the Columbia estuary counties are part of an impressive cluster of arts-centric counties grouped around Portland and Seattle, which themselves each rank near the top of America’s list of large cities with thriving arts sectors. Counting Pacific, 11 of Washington’s top counties are west of the Cascade crest, with eight in Seattle’s orbit and three closer to Portland, including Clark (Vancouver). Due to historic patterns, Pacific County draws from both Portland and Seattle.
Although the NCAR’s analysis is not without flaws, there’s no doubt we are far stronger and more interesting communities thanks to the arts and our residents who create them. We must not take this for granted. Rural counties like ours are particularly fortunate to possess such an intrinsically homegrown creative sector. Elsewhere in the West, only four Idaho counties are in the top tenth; Nevada has four; Arizona two; Utah six. In the U.S. as a whole, arts and the money they produce are skimpy across vast areas. In contrast, in places like Pacific County, the arts amount to dozens of small businesses, improving income while enhancing the intellectual and emotional wellbeing of all residents and visitors.
Aside from acting as a general rallying cry for the arts, NCAR’s report serves as rebuttal to President Trump and those in Congress who would gut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). NCAR’s analysis makes clear that federal art grants produce good returns, and don’t benefit privileged communities to the detriment of poorer ones.
“Our analysis shows that the arts benefit Americans at all income levels, and that NEA funding of the arts is remarkably impartial to community wealth characteristics,” said Zannie Voss, director of NCAR.
Few forms of economic development are so beneficial and inherently “by and for” local people as the arts. Let’s continue spending money and time with local artists of all kinds, while supporting the modest government programs that keep some arts programs viable.