Using art to enhance economic development

Culture: Packaging the city and region is as important as the attractions within.

June 24, 1999

THE POWER OF ART to strengthen a region, spiritually but also financially, was the intended message of a large gathering at the Baltimore Museum of Art this month.

Art's ability to communicate and enrich is undeniable. But the deeper, perhaps unintended, message of the symposium, "Arts as a magnet for Baltimore," was this: Imagination, inventiveness and initiative are the true agents of change for a region.

A city isn't transformed by the quality and value of the art in its museums -- although that doesn't hurt -- but by a broader sense of vibrancy, optimism and self-worth.

Representatives of Chicago, for example, boasted at the meeting about outbidding New York to host a show of European sculpture this summer. Works of Renaissance masters? No, life-size ceramic cows from Switzerland that are on display throughout the Windy City. Local artists have added their own touches, such as covering one with gumdrops. A Chicago businessman brought home the idea after seeing plaster bovines on a trip to Zurich.

Philadelphians also traveled down the interstate to relate their success with regional cultural marketing -- a strategy Baltimore and its surrounding counties should emulate. Baltimore's cultural community was already aware of the smash attendance for a Paul Cezanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1997.

But the group at the symposium was even more impressed when it learned how the show had spurred downtown hotel occupancy, especially halfway through the exhibit when the only available tickets required hotel stays. The result: 92 percent of the show's visitors came from outside Philadelphia and 29,000 hotel packages were sold.

Philly was so inspired, its campaign for a subsequent show asked, "How long does it take to look at a Delacroix? Oh, about three days."

Donald Brown, who chairs the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, said his group discovered that the frequency with which a person goes out to dine or drink is a better predictor than cultural knowledge of whether he or she would respond to a museum ad.

"The key isn't education in the arts," he said. "It's whether you're actively engaged in life."

Such lessons shouldn't surprise Baltimore. As mayor, William Donald Schaefer was the master of unconventional promotions when he wore funny hats, proclaimed days to wear pink and made trash disposal a sport.

For a city and region, creative marketing may be the most essential art form of them all.

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