The arts advantage

A strong culture scene draws talent, delivers economic impact

Posted on Oct 29, 2019 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For many in Northeast Wisconsin, it’s difficult to think of early August without picturing downtown Appleton’s Mile
of Music.

Entering its eighth year in 2020, the annual festival offers 900 live music sets across 70 venues. Mile 7 this past August drew 90,000-plus visitors and delivered more than $4 million in economic impact. The event has become a highly anticipated highlight of the summer for residents of the Fox Cities and beyond.

When Dave Willems, principal and founder of Willems Marketing and co-founder of Mile of Music, first envisioned the concept of the festival, it was a relatively new idea. Even then, however, he had an inkling it would resonate with people.

“Realistically, I think we hit the timing just right for an event as large-scale yet as grassroots as Mile of Music,” he says. “It was clear to me that the community was ready to engage and support something new and different that was also quite big, and it felt like people in general were seeking something experiential that provided a deeper connection to simply make life more interesting.”

Willems says fostering a vibrant arts and culture scene is critical to the well-being of a community. Through the concerted efforts of many groups, including Mile of Music, support for arts and culture has grown in the past seven years, he says.

From Mile of Music’s $4 million economic impact to the expected $20 million impact from the Fox Cities Performing Arts Centers 20-day run of “Hamilton,” embracing the arts pays big dividends. In fact, a U.S. Department of Commerce and National Endowment for the Arts study released in May found Wisconsin’s creative industries deliver a $9.7 billion annual economic impact and support more than 94,000 jobs statewide.

Community builder

While the arts offer undeniable economic benefits, they also provide intangible advantages. From embracing public art to investing in arts projects, many communities are increasing their efforts to support the local culture scene.

De Pere has established itself as a leader on that front. Construction is slated to get underway next year on the Mulva Cultural Center. Located in downtown De Pere on the east side of the Fox River, the $50 million, 60,000-square-foot center will feature exhibit and performance spaces as well as an open-air atrium, classrooms, an outdoor terrace and a veterans’ memorial.

De Pere natives and philanthropists Jim and Miriam Mulva are financing the design, construction and operations of the center through personal donations and grants from the Mulva Family Foundation, managed by the De Pere Cultural Foundation.

“By bringing these vibrant, cultural experiences to Northeast Wisconsin, we have a golden opportunity to engage, inspire and transform our community as well as the visitors to our community — today, tomorrow and for generations to come,” Miriam Mulva said in a release announcing the project. “Further, we expect this to be a catalyst for further economic development for De Pere.”

Bridget Krage O’Connor, spokesperson for the Mulva Cultural Center board, says the center is aimed at sharing De Pere with more of the world and providing outstanding experiences for the community’s residents.

“Where this art and cultural center will be is really, truly at the heart of De Pere and allows an opportunity for the city to leverage that cultural center and further advance what they’re referring to as a cultural district in De Pere,” she says.

The center will focus on traveling exhibits such as “Body Works” or Downton Abbey and will provide many educational opportunities, says Kim Flom, director of planning and economic development for the City of De Pere.

The cultural center is but one — albeit large — way De Pere is investing in the arts. As the city underwent planning initiatives and developed strategic branding and vision, the arts began to emerge as a clear focus.

The city conducted surveys and held open houses, and Flom says she was surprised and pleased to see the huge amount of public engagement. City leaders learned residents were happy with De Pere overall, but many talked about the importance of arts and culture.

While Flom says De Pere already had an undercurrent of galleries and arts spaces, the city wanted to become more intentional in its focus. It developed a Cultural District Master Plan to help outline its vision for aligning the city’s economic development with its historic charm. 

When De Pere received its stadium tax rebate from Lambeau Field, it invested $100,000 in public art and $150,000 in streetscape. It partnered with the nonprofit downtown development organization Definitely De Pere, which proposes projects and manages the art installations.

Murals have cropped up throughout the city, and it’s using the Nicolet Square alley, a pedestrian space between two buildings, as a venue for a honeybee-themed art installation that debuted in September.

Flom says embracing the arts is part of recognizing the ways economic development has shifted. De Pere wants to be an outstanding community for people of all ages, from children to young workers to families to seniors, and incorporating art helps it become that, she says.

“Business retention is still important, but now business goes where employees are,” she says.

A critical component

Jean Detjen, a social entrepreneur and founder and president of the Northeast Wisconsin Arts Association, agrees the arts play an important part in economic development on many levels. From helping to attract young people to supplying creative workers to employers, the arts are vital, she says.

“I believe there’s enormous potential for the arts sector to be integrally involved in economic, workforce and community development. Creativity is everywhere and among the most sought-after skills in today’s complex economy,” she says.

Detjen founded NEWAA in 2017. Wanting to help artists of all kinds, she looked to other cities and found they offered websites and directories that help give visibility to the creative community. NEWAA offers a directory that provides artists and organizations a chance to engage the community, share their work and collaborate with other creatives.

As a Northeast Wisconsin native, Detjen is passionate about seeing the region thrive, and she says the arts play an integral role in that. CEOs have identified attracting and retaining talent, creating new business models through disruptive technology and developing the next generation of leaders as top concerns, and the arts can help address all of those, she says.

Artists can bring unique perspectives and creative approaches to problem-solving in the workplace, Detjen says. Cultivating a thriving arts and culture scene also helps attract people to move to the area, she says.

On the education front, Detjen advocates for STEAM as opposed to STEM and says the arts can serve as an “on ramp” for STEM and provide a way for students to learn in a more accessible, interesting way.

Detjen isn’t alone in that thinking. Kent Hutchison, a multidisciplinary artist, launched STEAM Engine in 2017 to help promote the STEAM movement in the greater Green Bay area. He wanted to offer something that would drive people to have more engaging and relevant conversations.

STEAM Engine holds periodic evening events at the Neville Public Museum. While Hutchison says the events offer learning opportunities, they’re equally focused on providing a chance for people to have relevant and engaging conversations.

“It’s hard to make STEM sound sexy. I try to keep a real informal environment at the events. We try to make it accessible,” he says.

It’s important for all disciplines to embrace creativity, Hutchison says. Professionals in any industry will be more effective if they draw from broad-based experiences and explore non-traditional ways of thinking, he says.

Hutchison admits that after growing up in Green Bay, he was not initially excited to come back. After moving back from Madison, however, he says he’s happy to be raising his family in an up-and-coming place. In recent years, he’s seen a greater investment in visual and public art, and it’s a move he says will keep young people in the region.

“The arts do way more than just beautify, and that isn’t always appreciated by the general public,” Hutchison says. “Green Bay is really establishing itself in Wisconsin as a leader in the public arts.”