Poster for downtown cultural arts presentation by Georgetown TX Main Street (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Poster for downtown cultural arts presentation by Georgetown TX Main Street (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Although there are examples and case studies about how the arts can revitalize a town, you probably have anecdotal evidence from your own experiences, too.

What is often the first step to a downtown renewal? Artists and creative types move in because the rent is cheap. The area becomes hip and cool instead of empty and dangerous.

People are drawn to it, creative enterprises blossom….then rents go up, chains move in, and everyone starts complaining that it’s gotten too expensive and homogeneous….but that’s a post for another day.

What doesn’t change is that the arts definitely matter to the vitality of a community.

I took some notes recently from a “Breakfast Bites” morning quarterly business development presentation by the Main Street program for Georgetown, Texas, located just north of Austin.

The topic was how retailers, restaurants, and other downtown businesses and organizations can take advantage of cultural arts activity in their historic downtown.

The panel was moderated by Jane Estes with Texans for the Arts, and included Marissa Austin with the Georgetown Palace Theatre (a live theater company in a restored Art Deco building,) Mickie Ross who is the Executive Director of the Williamson Museum (the county historical museum,) plus Amanda Still, owner of Hill Design and Gallery and also active on several local arts boards.

How Does A Cultural District Help Tourism

How does all this artsy activity help tourism? Panelists had several thoughts….

1)  It brings more people to town. Success includes winning the numbers game, unless you can get four billionaires to show up and shower you with money.

2)  People’s enthusiasm for and involvement with the arts carries over to merchants and retail folks, fostering cooperation. Mickie jokingly commented, “When we have public programs outside museum walls, we do appreciate it when you [merchants] let the costumed interpreters inside your shop when it rains.”

3)  The sometimes lengthy and/or bureaucratic process of becoming a formally designated arts or cultural district (or even simply gaining recognition as “the artsy part of town,”) brings partners together as they unite for a common goal.

4)  Having cultural arts offerings means that you have more than one or two things for visitors to do. To get people to take the time to come visit your town, you need a variety of offerings and options. One or two things isn’t enough.

What Can Merchants Do To Capitalize On Arts Activities?

Form creative partnerships and keep each other informed about what’s going on!

Teamwork! Keith Haring public art at Pappajohn Sculpture Park downtown Des Moines Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Teamwork! Keith Haring public art at Pappajohn Sculpture Park downtown Des Moines Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)


Marissa from the Palace  —  “I can tell you what time that 300 people will go into and then come out of our theater. I can tell you when about 200 people will drop off and then pick up their children for our summer theater camp. People will ask us who is open for late dinner or drinks downtown after our show is over – do we have current information about your hours? Do we know about your current promotions?”

Note – a common problem is dead downtowns at night, especially on weekends. If you get people downtown to, say, the local theater, is there any place for them to go afterward? Many say that limited hours are the number one weakness of small town businesses, so think about how to address that issue.

Mickie from the museum  —  “Come play with us! Some merchants don’t even know that we are close by, right near them. We do fun things like a quarterly History Happy Hour, and we do have business memberships. When it makes sense, we highlight nearby businesses in our museum newsletter.”

“Be aware of what’s going on in town, and talk to each other. Half the people who come into our museum turn around when they’re done and ask us where they should go next; we’re practically a Visitor Center. Are you on our radar?

Amanda from the gallery  —  “Get to know the types of people that arts and culture bring to town; they have a lot in common with Shop Local enthusiasts. Visitor time is valuable; we are all busy. If they take the time to visit, make sure that we give good value for their time, and give them an experience to remember. Engage people and be friendly, to build visitor AND business customer loyalty.”

Talk to each other, including online through social media, so that the whole downtown gets in sync and works together for the common benefit.

A Few More Ideas

**  Breakfast Bites attendee and painter Kathleen McElwaine emphasized that local artists and musicians need to know how they can fit into the downtown scene; how they can contribute to all this buzzy downtown activity in a way that helps them make a living. Is there a central place where artists can find Calls for Entries?

**  Art is not just for art museums or galleries. An art space/gallery within the county historical museum is a good opportunity for local artists, if they know what kind of themed displays are planned.

**  Combine art with history by hosting plein air painting events at historic sites (or maybe combine movement with history by hosting yoga sessions at historic places.)

**  Is there a conference hotel in your town? Can Cultural/Arts District brochures or catalogs be placed in each room? Is the hotel staff aware of current downtown happenings?

**  One concept that Mickie from the Williamson Museum emphasized over and over is the importance of moving historical experiences outside of the four walls of the actual museum and into public spaces, similar to public art taking artistic interactions into the public arena. Costumed interpreters can make an historical marker come alive. Programs like Hello Lamp Post encourage interaction with historic items through a mobile device.

Museums have an important role to play in lifelong education, and they can be modern, immersive experiences if planned well. For more on this, see Gary Hoover’s 10 ideas for bringing museums into the 21st century.

Moderator Jane Estes wrapped up the discussion with this….

“What do you like to see when you travel? Be that for your town.”

Like they say, “be the change you seek.”

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