The art of making money: Arts and culture economic drivers

Allison Sarmo, former cultural arts coordinator for the Grand Junction Arts Commission, continues to promote the arts in the Grand Valley, including the display of prominent sculptures like the chrome buffalo downtown. Sarmo is now helping to promote the Grand Valley Performing Arts Festival set for Aug. 4 to 7 at Mesa State College.

It’s sometimes considered one of the soft drivers in a community — an industry that provides plenty of intellectual and emotional inspiration, but one whose economic effects can be hard to quantify. Even as various organizations promote the artistic and cultural benefits of a small city in Western Colorado, they realize support for the arts can escalate as such a city realizes the financial benefits, particularly during a soft economy.

A 2007 report compiled for the Grand Junction Commission on Arts and Culture claims the arts made a $27 million impact on the local economy in 2006. Local arts and cultural organizations spent $10 million in operating funds and invested $900,000 in capital projects. The report was compiled by Thea Chase, an assistant professor of business at Mesa State College when the research was compiled, and Allison Sarmo, the then-cultural arts coordinator for the commission.

“I would love to see the art community grow faster,” says Sarmo, who’s now helping promote the Grand Valley Performing Arts Festival set for

Aug. 4 to 7 at Mesa State College. The festival will feature dance, music, poetry and theater.

The financial effects of the arts are due in part to the estimated 137 people who work for arts and culture organizations in Mesa County. When accounting for all jobs in theater, design, music and artistic professions — such as TV and radio production — the number is more like 900, says Sarmo.

One of those people has a day job as mortgage banker, but follows her passion for art as a side career.

“I was able to hear the needs of the artists,” says Kat Rhein, publisher of “Western Colorado Journeys,” a book that features Western Colorado art and poetry as well as maps and a list of festivals and other attractions in the region.

A member of the Grand Junction Commission on Arts and Culture, Rhein helps make decisions about how the city spends dollars it sets aside for public art displays, such as those seen in city hall. Under a resolution approved by the Grand Junction City Council in 1997, 1 percent of the funds allocated for construction of projects funded by the city are earmarked for paintings, sculptures and other artwork in those buildings.

In addition, the Downtown Development Authority, an organization which collects money from a downtown property tax, has been funding the Art on the Corner display for more than 20 years. The display features work from artists near and far, and many of the sculptures are for sale.

“We see the Art on the Corner as a cultural destination,” says Felicia Sabartinelli-Abeyta, public art administrator for Art on the Corner. “It’s an economic driver. We see Art on the Corner that way.”

The project started in the late 1980s under the direction of Dave Davis, director of the Western Colorado Center For the Arts at the time.

The displays are joined by sculptures of the Legends — figures who shaped Grand Junction history. They include newspaper publisher Walter Walker, author and Hollywood notable Dalton Trumbo and hospital founder Sister Mary Balbina Farrell. A statue of John Otto, the trail builder and trail blazer who promoted what’s now the Colorado National Monument, is scheduled to be installed on Main Street later this year.

Rhein would like to see even more local tax dollars directed toward the arts. “I’ve been promoting for Grand Junction to have an arts district,” she says, with separate taxing authority in a specific area of the Grand Valley.

Rhein employs people who also fall under the category of arts-related businesses.

Kitty Nicholason works as art director for Rhein’s publication, but has many other irons in the fire as she does graphic design work from her home in Grand Junction.

“There’s a big difference between fine art and design,” Nicholason says. “I’m not a fine artist.”

She’s found she can make a better living as a designer than an artist, but also knows firsthand the sky’s the limit for an accomplished artist who markets his work. Her husband, Bill Vielehr, has sold sculptures for up to $50,000, she says.

Nicholason has done work for Cobb and Associates, the Downtown Partnership, Grand Valley Power, Hilltop, St. Mary’s Hospital, West Star Aviation and local wineries. She also designs many of the advertisements that appear in the Business Times.   

She says she enjoys the freedom that comes with setting her own schedule. “When I get up in the morning, I’m in sweats. I’m working this weekend because I cleaned my garage yesterday.”

Mesa State College is major player in the business of visual arts, music and theater in the Grand Valley. The theater department was ranked second among Colorado colleges in a survey conducted about 10 years ago, says Tim Pinnow, director of that department.

Business has been good at the Moss Performing Arts Center and Robinson Theater at the college. Ticket sales were up 70 percent during the 2010-2011 theater season and season ticket sales rose 30 percent, Pinnow says. He had hoped for a 10 percent increase.

“It was a community friendly season,” he says, which included such well-known productions as “Oklahoma!” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

The college might have benefited from the closure of the Cabaret Dinner Theater in downtown Grand Junction. Similar ventures have opened and closed in the past decade, but a new theater on Main Street could provide some alternative entertainment. The college benefits from the use of tax dollars and student fees that enable it to pay the $7,000 or so in royalty fees required to stage high-profile plays.

The college also offers musical and dance performances throughout the year.

“We’re a service organization,” Pinnow says. “We have to be designated toward public service.”

The arts are a good fit with the wine industry and for people who frequent golf courses — and the Grand Valley promotes all three.

“It’s the same group of folks,” says Jennifer Grossheim-Harris, marketing and public relations coordinator for the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau. “They’re not just doing one thing.”

People who visit wineries are also liable to visit art galleries. They’re also liable to be leisure travelers who tend to spend more than business travelers who are in town for a convention, says Grossheim-Harris. Leisure travelers spend an estimated $50 to $100 a day on such activities as dining and shopping.

“And an art-oriented event attracts more affluent travelers,” she said. So festivals such as the Colorado Mountain Winefest and Art and Jazz Festival can be provide infusions of cash from out-of-town visitors.

The arts have certainly grown as a local force. The 2007 study concluded that more than 500,000 people attended arts and cultural events in Mesa County in 2006. That was a 55 percent increase over the estimate in 2000.

Whether the influence of arts and culture will continue to grow remains to be seen. But the segment has the backing of a sizable contingent of people already drawing paychecks while they work in an industry they enjoy.