By Shawn Pitts
Money is never the primary motivation for creating art. No one picks up a paint brush or sits down at a piano the first time with dreams of fame and fortune. Most people are attracted to the various artistic disciplines because they allow individuals to satisfy their need to create or effectively express themselves. But that’s not to say there is no connection between artists and the economy.
The vast majority of artists, like athletes, will never go pro. But many of them will continue their creative pursuits for a lifetime as hobbyists. A certain percentage of these will achieve a level of skill that is appreciated by their neighbors creating economic opportunity. Think of the potters, textile artists or metalworkers who supplement their income peddling their wares or the band whose members work day jobs but pick up extra money playing music on the weekends. It is rarely expressed in economic term, but these and many others engaged in similar creative activities, are essentially small business owners. They generate income for themselves as well as the venues who hire them to play music or the retailers who purchase and resell their art. They spend their earnings locally, buy supplies from other small business owners, and pay into the county and city tax bases. Taken together they are a significant segment of our local economy.
Similarly, when local people organize to create opportunity for artists, the economic impact is amplified and the community is the winner. First, and most importantly, our talented friends and neighbors are offered creative outlets that can be enjoyed by the public. Think of the plays, musicals, concerts, art showings, exhibitions and other cultural programs that draw literally thousands of people to the Latta every year. Think of the Rockabilly Highway Murals and Trail of Music Legends in downtown Selmer and the annual plein air painting festival in Adamsville which draw cultural tourists to our county in droves. These programs enhance local livability, build positive identity and good will within our community, and engender positive associations among visitors. But they also produce an often under-appreciated financial windfall for the entire region.
In 2016 The Tennessee Arts Commission invited Arts in McNairy to participate in a national survey conducted by Americans for the Arts to determine the impact of arts activity on local economies. The individualized findings for McNairy County were astonishing. During the survey period hundreds of visitors and locals were asked a variety of questions to determine spending patterns connected to arts events. That data was combined with budget figures from organizations like Arts in McNairy who invest heavily in community arts programs.
In the final analysis, McNairy County’s creative sector is responsible for generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic activity, pouring money into the tax base, creating jobs and enhancing prospects for industrial recruitment and retention. Local arts programs attracted thousands in outside revenues and reduced spending across county and state lines, keeping valuable resources in the local economy. In fact, for every dollar invested in arts events, audiences put nearly $13 back in local cash registers. That’s nearly ten times the national average. As it turns out, the local arts scene is far from a trifle, it’s a crucial part of our economic diversity and vitality. Simply stated, the arts are just good business for McNairy County.
So the next time you order a ticket for a local show, or purchase a piece of art from a local artist or maker, think of it as an investment in your community. You will be getting a one of a kind original; you will be supporting local creativity; and you will be building a sustainable creative economy. There’s no downside in any of that.
This article first appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal March 24, 2021
One of Arts in McNairy's first programs was the summer art camp hosted by Selmer Community Center. Local kids received fun and educational instruction in a variety of arts disciplines during the weeklong camps. Artists and arts educators Shelia Treece and Ronnie Christopher are shown above preparing student artwork for showing at the close of the 2001 camp.
By Shawn Pitts
The word “art” has an off-putting ring to many people. Add the adjective “fine” and it’s even worse. For some, such a phrase evokes notions of highbrow institutions or forms of art that seem, by design, inaccessible to ordinary folks. Similarly, “culture” may sound just as distasteful with its overtones of elitist exclusion.
But the arts and culture are as common to everyday human experience as the air we breathe. Any activity that taps into the deep reservoir of individual creativity may rightly be regarded as an art form, and culture is simply the creative traditions we share and value as a community. Viewed in this light, arts and culture are stripped of their negative baggage and we begin to see our neighbors and our neighborhood from a fresh and healthier perspective. Everyone from the local local banjo picker, story teller and quilter to the classically trained violinist, poet and oil painter may be respected as a contributor to the creative life of our community.
These insights are especially important in rural communities where many residents may feel alienated or disconnected from urban cultural centers that do not mirror their artistic interests or serve their creative needs. Twenty years ago—March 6, 2001 to be exact—this was very much on the minds of a small group of citizens who met at Selmer City Hall to form Arts in McNairy (AiM). No one knew it at the time, but we were in for the adventure of a lifetime. Though the groundwork had been laid as early as August of the previous year, that March meeting marked the official launch of an organization that would rally McNairy and surrounding counties around a staggering variety of cultural programs in nearly every creative discipline.
Over the years Arts in McNairy has been recognized at the local, state and national level for excellence in rural arts programming. I am firmly convinced that the acknowledged quality and sustainability of the group’s efforts are directly connected to the leadership’s tenacious focus on the community rather than the organization itself. Yes, as the vehicle that delivers key programs, the infrastructure of the organization must be thoughtfully maintained and funded, but the uncompromising mission to persevere and enrich McNairy County’s cultural life was Arts in McNairy’s north star from the outset. It is the primary reason the organization is still going strong at twenty and looking to an even brighter future.
As we commemorate two successful decades of creative community building, it is my great honor to share some of Arts in McNairy’s history as well as the leadership’s forward looking vision with readers of the Independent Appeal through a series of short, guest columns. I was there for that first 2001 meeting along with Independent Appeal publisher, Janet Rail, who was subsequently appointed to AiM’s inaugural board of directors. Janet intuitively grasped and championed the AiM mission. She ensured the Independent covered every new twist and turn in our development and offered generous sponsorships for important programs such as the popular community theatre season and annual Music Hall of Fame. We couldn’t have built a successfully arts agency without that kind of media support and we are deeply grateful.
We also owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the many volunteers, audience members and financial partners who have supported Arts in McNairy every step of the way. A wise mentor once told me, “a nonprofit is dead in the water if the community doesn’t understand and embrace its mission.” He couldn’t have been more right, and AiM has had the great advantage of working in a community that was hungry for arts programs and eager to explore every new avenue of creativity put before them.
It’s been quite a ride, and I think I speak for AiM leadership when I say we can’t wait to see how the next twenty years unfold.
This article first appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal March 10, 2021
It's hard to believe Arts in McNairy turns twenty this month, but it's true. On March 6, 2001 AiM's first board of directors was appointed and their first official act was adopting a set of bylaws that would guide the organization through its formative phases. Those directors and the founding documents they gave us have served our community well. Since that momentous first meeting, dozens of people have served on the board, volunteered for committee assignments and developed some of the best community arts programs in rural Tennessee if not the Southeast. We are proud of those accomplishments and not shy about bragging on the people who have worked so hard to bring them about. Where would we be without you?
We are entering as season of looking back and looking forward. Our partners at the McNairy County Independent Appeal will be publishing a series of articles that highlight some of Arts in McNairy's major accomplishments, share the stories of pivotal moments in our history and offer a forward-looking vision that will inspire our creative community to reach even higher for the next twenty years. If you happen to miss the article s in print, don't worry, they will appear in this space the week following publication in the Independent.
And we want to hear from you! By now, literally thousands of people have served and been served by Arts in McNairy. Whether you found your voice in one of our music, literature or community theatre productions; discovered a passion for the arts in one of our camps, workshops, or folklife programs; or were simply moved by any form of local creativity as an audience member or community partner, we would love for you to share those experiences. These are the stories that make it all worth while and we invite you to contact us by email or through any of our social media platforms. You might even get a spot as a guest blogger!
So, happy twentieth anniversary to Arts in McNairy. Time really does fly when you are having fun!