On July 31, 2005, Mt. Auburn Associates released a 200-page report titled "Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business." In it, the Maryland-based consulting group made a convincing statistical case in favor of a previously untapped fossil fuel for Louisiana's economic engine. The study found that the cultural sector accounted for 144,000 jobs, or nearly 8 percent of overall employment in the state, second only to health care in that regard. "If culture — abundant, renewable, and clean — is Louisiana's metaphorical new oil," it argued, "then it requires the industrial equivalent of the skilled workers, refineries, pipelines, and business entities to bring it to the global marketplace."
One month later, federal levee breaches would push the Mt. Auburn findings to the back burner. But the ill-timed report has become something of a watershed and a lodestone for Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and his office's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (DCRT), which commissioned the white paper with the National Endowment for the Arts. At 9:30 a.m. on Fri., Oct. 30, Landrieu will launch the programming component of his fourth Louisiana Cultural Economy Summit (the first since 2007) with a panel discussion featuring James Carville. His opening topic: aggrandizing the role of local culture in the rebound from the global recession.
"What we've seen is that the cultural economy is a recovery economy," says Scott Hutchison, assistant secretary for the DCRT's Office of Cultural Development. While the employment number cited in the Mt. Auburn study may have dropped, Hutchison says, the percentage remains constant even in troubled times. "What you're going to see is that the services are still being presented to the stakeholders. What is provided by the cultural economy in Louisiana is so essential to our tourism industry, to our everyday way of life. I live in New Orleans; I still want to eat good food. With our cultural economy, it's been more flexible. Everybody wants access to more capital, but we've been able to adjust."
Connecting area stakeholders — musicians, artists, producers, restaurateurs — to available capital is a top item on this year's agenda. Where previous summits sought to legitimize the clout of the cultural sector, the 2009 edition is taking the next step, gearing up as a tool-driven networking extravaganza. Thursday meet-and-greets and Friday dine-arounds are organized by purview — music, visual arts, film, culinary arts — allowing both cultural entrepreneurs and financial backers to depart with "a new arsenal of information and peers," Hutchison says.
Afternoon seminars on Friday consist of panel presentations and breakout roundtables, and are partitioned by four primary, ongoing DCRT initiatives: "When Art Makes the Grade," an arts-in-education campaign based on 2007 legislation shepherded by Landrieu; "Culture's Triple Play: Saving Neighborhoods, Architecture and the Arts," covering district establishment and preservation as well as material conservation, cultural identity and branding; "The Business of Culture: Getting to the Bottom Line," which incorporates advertising, marketing, business models and tax incentives; and "Cultural Philanthropy: With a Little Help From Our Friends," connecting local organizations in need of funding with national foundations seeking developmental projects.
"We have the head of the Bronx Council on the Arts, Bill Aguado, who created the South Bronx Cultural Corridor, which is unbelievable," Hutchison says. "Nonprofit Finance Fund, they specialize in funding nonprofit and cultural ventures. That is kind of a new asset that our stakeholders will get. They don't have an office here, so they don't do a lot of stuff in the South. We want our stakeholders to know that they exist, and we want them to know that our stakeholders exist. It opens up a new avenue for capital development."
Establishing cultural districts and creating capital out of thin air are subjects that hit close to home for Steve Martin, a presenter at the summit. The New Orleans artist and gallery owner moved into the Warehouse District in 1994, the same year White Linen Night (sans current sponsor Whitney Bank) made its modest debut on Julia Street. "I bought an old house on Carondelet and Lafayette (streets)," he recalls, "back when it was still derelict, plywood in the windows and drunks on the street."
Over the subsequent 15 years, the area has been successfully rebranded as the New Orleans Arts District, the epicenter for New Orleans' visual arts community. In December 2008, along with the newly renovated Oak Street corridor and 15 other targeted neighborhoods, it was included in the Louisiana Cultural Districts Initiative, part of another Landrieu-backed bill passed during the 2007 legislative session that provides tax incentives for business operators and building owners in 45 districts across the state.
The initiative has translated into a boon for business, Martin says. "By over-stamping the [Downtown Development District] area, it allows us to sell original artwork at no taxation to the buyer. That's really a huge selling point for people."
Today, the district is among the most densely populated and in-demand commercial and residential areas in the city, and Martin's efforts as a two-time former president and current vice president of the New Orleans Arts District Association have been instrumental. These include a trademark on White Linen Night, creating seed money through licensing fees; establishing partnerships with neighborhood feeder businesses through a Friends of the Arts program; and, with help from the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, purchasing advertorial buy-ins with magazines like Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine. "Basically, we just started to use business principles for everything we do to raise money," Martin says. "One-hundred percent of the money we raise is spent on advertising the area."
"When you put incentives in industry, you see results," Hutchison says. "So when you take that same approach with the cultural industry, what results can you see? With the cultural districts, it overlays as much a mentality as it does a practical application. We started with the visual arts. The idea of the cultural district is to provide a cultural resource around Louisiana. Not every city in Louisiana has a Julia Street as such, but they have the potential to. So the idea of the cultural district is to support the infrastructure that exists and create the infrastructure in those places where it doesn't exist."
Speaking from Shreveport, where he oversaw the awards of grants to area arts councils, Hutchison points to that city as another example of a cultural movement impacting commerce. "They've done a lot of that in the downtown area, rehabbing old warehouses and turning them into apartments or live/work space for artists. Certainly, the Warehouse District in New Orleans is a great example. One of the things that makes the summit so valuable is, the people in Shreveport are able to talk to the people in New Orleans. And vice versa."
Kathy Randels is the artistic director of ArtSpot Productions, which received roughly 38 percent of its 2008-09 fiscal budget from city and state arts funding. She is attending her second summit, this time to introduce Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for nonprofit theater and a supporter of Randels' work. In honor of the visit, ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro are staging an encore performance of Raymond "Moose" Jackson's Loup Garou in New Orleans City Park (4 p.m. Wed., Oct. 28). "We're doing it largely so that Teresa Eyring and (American Theatre Magazine senior editor) Jim O'Quinn can see it, and anybody else who's visiting for the Cultural Economy Summit," Randels says.
Loup Garou is an old-fashioned werewolf fright fest, but much of it concentrates symbolically on the exploitation of Louisiana's natural resources — a stance Randels assumes to form an explicit argument for Landrieu's Cultural Economy Initiative. "The value of our culture, our artists and our culture bearers is increasing as our land is disappearing," she says. "Mitch isn't the only politician that has appreciated the arts, but he's certainly the politician in our history that has championed the arts, and said, 'Hey, you know what, ladies and gentlemen? Our greatest asset is our culture, so let's figure out how to pay our artists and our culture bearers.'"
For a complete schedule and more information about the Louisiana Cultural Economy Summit, visit www.lcesculture.net.