Arts, culture are vital in region's knowledge economy

Mark A. Heckler
President, Valparaiso University
July 26, 2009

The world's economic doldrums are forcing nearly all of us to make some very tough personal choices. Can we afford health insurance? Can we afford to take a vacation this year? Can we afford to eat out this month? Belt-tightening forces each of us to make decisions about what is most important to us, about short-term sacrifice and long-term goals.

Businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and our elected leaders have tough choices, too. Do we stop projects we have begun or close existing programs? Do we freeze or reduce salaries and benefits? Do we lay off employees? Leaders must weigh the impact of today's choices on tomorrow's success.

It is within this context that I ask you to think about the health and vitality of Northwest Indiana's arts and cultural organizations. What role do they play in the quality of life in our region and in its economic performance? How might our short-term decisions about arts and culture affect the region 10 or 20 years from now?

Urban planner Richard Florida is one of the today's most sought-after speakers on trends in economic competitiveness, demography and innovation. Why? Because he articulated the concept of the "creative class," that group of innovative, well-educated and highly mobile people who are the engines of prosperity in today's knowledge economy.

People in the creative class choose to live and work in places where a combination of excellent higher education, natural beauty, recreational opportunities and cultural amenities make for superior quality of life. Arts and culture play an important role in attracting and retaining the creative class. Are we well positioned to leverage our arts and cultural organizations to compete for tomorrow's knowledge workers?

The 2008 Quality of Life Indicators Report shows that, when it comes to the vitality of our arts and cultural organizations, Northwest Indiana is losing ground. While the number of our arts and cultural organizations grew 2.8 percent from 2004-2008 to 260 organizations, the level of growth did not keep pace with Indiana as a whole, where the growth rate over this period averaged 5.5 percent.

Annual revenues among the region's cultural organizations were essentially flat over this four-year period, with 2008 revenues at roughly $17.4 million.

Given the escalating cost of living during this four-year period, it is clear that the region's cultural organizations have had to do significant belt-tightening, well before the current economic crisis.

Calls for improvements in basic skills and increased proficiency in science, math, and technology continue to wean precious resources away from the very programs that will bring necessary creativity and innovation alongside technological and mathematical capability. Faced with significant resource constraints, school districts continue to cut programs in art and music. Our children's current and future quality of life may well suffer from tough decisions that must be made in our schools today.

There are promising signs as well. Some cultural organizations are collaborating in new and innovative ways, most notably the management relationship between the Northwest Indiana Symphony and South Shore Arts.

LaPorte County residents benefit from a collaboration among the Michigan City Public Library, the LaPorte County Public Library and Purdue University North Central to show films in three venues across the county.

These two examples provide evidence of the benefits cultural partnerships can bring to our region during economically challenging times.

We continue to make difficult decisions in this prolonged and global recession. Whether at work, at home or in our schools, we must weigh the choices we make today against the impact our choices will have on our vision for tomorrow. Our region's arts and cultural organizations as well as the arts in our schools deserve our continued investment, patronage and support.

Together, they contribute immeasurably to the quality of life in Northwest Indiana and to our future economic vitality.