February 6, 2009

Art, commerce, and community

by Lorraine Collins
Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@rushmore.com

Three years ago when the Matthews Opera House in Spearfish was celebrating its 100th birthday, I wrote an article commemorating that event in which I said that it’s appropriate for the South Dakota Arts Council to be in the Department of Tourism and State Development. This recognizes the importance of the arts in promoting economic development in South Dakota. So of course I was surprised when the governor said, because of the dire economic situation we face, he wants to do away with arts funding entirely in the next budget, which would eliminate the Arts Council.

Apparently he was not thinking of the arts as something that generate income and promote economic development, but of course the arts do. However, I can understand the problem he and the Legislature face. They all have to think about what programs are important for this state to preserve and encourage, and also about where expenses can possibly be cut in a time of budget shortfall.

Many state programs essential for the well being of our citizens do not generate any income, but they can’t be eliminated without causing hardship and bigger problems down the line. These include social services of various kinds, such as Medicaid, nutrition programs, the Birth to Three program and child protection services. Then there are large budget items such as law enforcement, prisons, state universities, and state support of public schools. Having so many state supported programs and institutions that are important but which do not generate income is typical of government services, of course.

So it’s lucky when you can find a program that is both important to preserve for the welfare of the people of the state and that can also make money, adding to economic development and bringing in sales tax. The people of Lawrence County who have worked to restore both Matthews Opera House and the Homestake Opera House in Lead have relied on their ability to raise money, manage debt, and produce programs that bring in revenue to help pay for everything. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised and spent locally for these operations. And thousands of people have come to town to enjoy performances. How can all this not have a beneficial economic impact?

The South Dakota Arts Council provides challenge grants for arts organizations around the state to help them continue to survive, some of the money coming from the Legislature and some from the National Endowment for the Arts. I believe about $750,000 in federal funds are earmarked for the state, but the money will be lost if we have no state agency to receive and disburse the funds. Furthermore, at present $50 million of the new stimulus package will go the NEA and of that, 40% will be passed through to the State Arts Councils. The other 49 states will share in that, as ours is the only state talking about eliminating its Arts Council.

Looking at the settlement and development of our state, we can see that when a new town was built, the first public edifice might be a school and the second a church. But the next important building was a place for people to come together to see plays and musical programs and lectures. Even before the Matthews Opera House was built in 1906, there were two other venues for performances in Spearfish, one in 1883 and another in 1885. These were built by enterprising individuals who knew something that’s still true today. A town without cultural offerings is not a town anyone wants to visit, let alone live in.

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