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Reports on the Ventura Art Scene Spark Discussion of Regional Arts Advocacy Strategy

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Sitting on shelves and collecting dust are two important and revealing reports on the health and impact of the Ventura county art scene. They describe the region's cultural field and its economy, highlight its strengths and weaknesses, and point to tremendous untapped potential -- offering lessons for any arts community to take away. If you walk past them, you might hear whispers, maybe a moan. They possess information that needs to be shared.

These reports, the "Local Arts Index" by Americans for the Arts, and "Ventura County and the Arts: Impact and Opportunity for Community" by the Ventura County Community Foundation, are small fires of institutional knowledge that artists should gather around. For artists and arts organizations struggling to adapt to an uncertain future, the findings in these reports could help light the way. And they contain stories of a collective impact -- and shared challenges -- that provide enough fuel to spark a much-needed arts advancement strategy for the region.

"Local Arts Index" report.

Since the reports offer a bird's eye view of Ventura County, they may diminish some of the distinctions between the region's different cities, so before rolling in the data, I'd like to talk topography. Ventura as a county is not really a contiguous culture. It is shaped and separated by mountain, hill, valley, river and other geographic features that foster cultural expressions specific to each city. Ojai's mystique is profoundly shaped by its remote nest between the glorious Topa Topas and Sulphur Mountain. Santa Paula and Fillmore's distant stretch up into the hot Santa Clara river valley has earned them the title, "Citrus Capital of the World," while preserving their turn-of-the century look and feel. The Conejo Valley -- comprised of Thousand Oaks, Westlake, Agoura Hills -- blends the horse country feel of its wild edges with the polished sub-urbanity rubbed off from neighboring L.A.

This geography, and its geology, has engendered enterprise. Oxnard is the region's most midwestern city with specific industries drawing a culturally diverse workforce throughout its history. Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Black Americans, the diverse people of Mexico, Central and South America, came here to farm the rich alluvial plain of the Santa Clara River. These farmers then created the Port of Hueneme, the only deep water port between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which brought a Naval base to town and fortified the nearby farming, ranching, flower-growing, oil and auto industries. The city of Ventura is shaped in equal parts by the agricultural and oil riches of its river valley as well as by its location on the 101 Freeway, formerly the El Camino Real trail. It offers the first point of contact with the ocean, a spilling out point, a place to stop your heart and catch your breath along the road. The city is working class for the most part, biker and surf culture meet working families and artists seeking an affordable, more humane existence next to the behemoth that is Los Angeles. With these specifics of place in mind, the region as a whole is similar to a big city, with the cultural patchwork of each neighboring town offering a blend of unique and cross-pollinated culture.

Back to the reports. Ventura was one of 100 counties selected by the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) to participate in its first-ever "Local Arts Index." AFTA, an arts advocacy organization, offers data measuring the health and vitality of the arts dating back to 1998 through its National Arts Index Report. When local arts agencies requested a measuring tool to help them direct advocacy efforts and affect local policy and funding, AFTA designed the Local Arts Index (LAI). The LAI analyzes counties by measuring levels of participation, programming, spending, revenues, support and training for the arts in a given county. It then provides a comparative framework to let counties know how they stand in relation to national and state norms, and how they measure against other US counties that have similar demographics (median age, racial diversity, seniors and population density) and social economic properties (household income, bachelors degrees, commuters, and age of housing). The LAI draws its information primarily from national sources, such as US government data from census and tax returns, studies from the Urban Institute, and research by Dun & Bradstreet. It also relies on data collected from local partners. The City of Ventura took the lead in applying and in conducting the report on behalf of Ventura county. The report was issued in May of 2012, but according to Eric Wallner, the city of Ventura's recently departed Creative Economy Director and local organizer of the report, its results have yet to be presented or discussed. The LAI testifies that "we have great potential to grow and great need," says Wallner, "it's really a call to arms."

The second report, "Ventura County and the Arts: Impact and Opportunity for Community," was commissioned in 2008 by the Ventura County Community Foundation (VCCF) to serve as the first phase of its ArtsLive Initiative, a three-year program to strengthen the arts in Ventura County funded in part by the James Irvine Foundation. The VC Arts Impact report measured the scope and scale of arts, participation in the arts, the economic impact of the arts and creative businesses, and identified the nature and needs of artists and arts organizations in the county. This research helped ArtsLIVE define its goals and strategies and, from 2008 to 2010, the initiative heightened the visibility of the arts through grantmaking, held public convenings to strategize around key issues, developed a Young Artists Scholarship Fund, and provided donor development training for arts nonprofits. ArtsLIVE undertook this work during the height of the economic crisis and gathered an invaluable body of knowledge about Ventura County arts organizations along the way. The ArtsLIVE leadership recognizes that, "in time of economic crisis, there is never more of a clarion call for investing in the arts to bind the social fabric of community," shares Dena Jensen, Vice President and Director of the Center for Non-Profit Leadership at VCCF. Even so, at the end of the initiative, the VCCF board determined that the most effective piece feature they could sustain long term was dedicated capacity building workshops for the arts.

"Ventura County and the Arts" report. Click here to download the PDF file.

The sourcing of data and the storytelling about it is an art form in itself. The LAI has been criticized for not really being "local," given its reliance on national data sources and its imposition of a framework that is ultimately cookie cutter, even as it tries to be adaptable and compare apples to apples. For example, when making regional comparisons, Ventura is not being compared to Los Angeles county, but to similar-sized counties within surrounding states. Leaders in Ventura found that performing adequate outreach and data gathering required more resources than were available. While the LAI may not accurately reflect what it looks and feels like on the ground in Ventura county, the numbers found within the national data sources are solid and the comparisons between similar counties are extremely useful and compelling. VCCF found that when they tried to measure the economic impact of the arts, they had to pull from seemingly unrelated sources. "Because it is an industry that includes government, nonprofit and proprietary organizations," the report states, "there is no all-inclusive data source from which to derive estimates of economic activity." They devised a complex but logical means to do so.

Woven together, the LAI and the VC Arts Impact Report present a holistic and useful picture of the Ventura County arts and culture scene. Both draw attention to the high density of artists and creative business in the region and outline the enormous scale of their economic impact. They hint at new possibilities gained through re-thinking how we define arts participation and donor potential. And they reveal a shocking lack of infrastructure supporting all of this. The most critical thing the reports do is unite artists, arts organizations and creative businesses into a block of influence, something that those entities have yet to do themselves.

"According to census data, there are 282 solo artists -- artists, writers and performers who claim art as their business -- per every 100,000 residents in Ventura County."

In independent reports, both the National Endowment for the Arts and creative class theorist Richard Florida have singled out the city of Ventura for having a high density of artists and creative businesses. The LAI and the VC Arts Impact Report confirm these findings for the county. According to census data, there are 282 solo artists -- artists, writers and performers who claim art as their business -- per every 100,000 residents in Ventura County. That is sixty points higher than the state average, nearly double the national average, and significantly higher than counties of similar demographic and socio-economic blends. The number of creative businesses reflect a similar stand-out pattern. Drawn from Dun & Bradstreet data from 2011, Ventura county boasts 385 creative businesses per 100,000 residents, enterprises ranging from arts nonprofits to video rental stores, jewelry-making to photographic supplies, interior design to instrument manufacturing, graphic design to media production. This number is more than double the national average, and is, surprisingly, 90 points higher than the state average. Dun & Bradstreet reports that arts-centric businesses comprise almost 6 percent of all the businesses in Ventura County, while the national average per county is only a 2.5 percent share.

The VC Arts Impact Report offers a more detailed look at the economic impact that artists, nonprofits, and arts businesses have as an aggregate. It is important to look at these different groups as an industry, given that there is often fluidity in the workforce between them and their cumulative economic activity ripples into the larger economy. An individual may claim income as a self-employed artist while also teaching art part time and volunteering at a nonprofit. Artwork sold outside of the county are considered exports. Area nonprofits help circulate donor money through the local economy. And commercial work produced by artists, such as web design or video production, helps other businesses be more productive and profitable. To calculate this, the report considers the revenues of nonprofits and creative business as reported on their tax returns to represent the value of their direct economic output. It adds to that a conservative estimate of the indirect output of local businesses supplying goods and services to the creative industry, as well as induced expenditures made in the county by the industry's employees.

The VCCF report shows that arts-related businesses and nonprofit have a combined revenue, and therefore direct output, of $1.2 billion and "support nearly 20,000 jobs in the region." The overall economic impact, which includes direct, indirect and induced spending, totals a whopping $2.1 billion while contributing $192 million in federal, state, and local taxes. The report establishes that the creative industry's contribution to the regional economy, is on par with "Ventura County's agricultural production." If Ventura arts organizations were considered a single employer with 2,000 paid employees, the report finds, "they would tie as the 10th largest in the county with Community Memorial Hospital and Ventura Unified School District" If we add to that the estimated 7,900 board members and volunteers contributing to the output of these organizations, arts nonprofits employ a county workforce comparable to Amgen or the Navy.

In spite of the density of artists and the scale of economic activity, Ventura County arts organizations are alarmingly small. They are small in number. The LAI reports that the county has 13 arts and culture nonprofits for every 100,000 residents, with 21 and 25 being the national and regional averages, respectively. This number is especially low in comparison to counties with a similar mix of college degrees, household income and racial diversity. Understanding the size and scope of the nonprofit sector is critical because they reflects the availability of the arts as well as the capacity for the arts to develop in that community. The LAI offers counts on the different types of Ventura nonprofits, all of which come in lower than all other averages. Of particular concern is the lack of Humanities and Heritage nonprofits, which celebrate cultural traditions, promote ethnic awareness, or honor local history. Ventura County has only 1.6 per every 100,000 residents, while other counties with comparable racial diversity have well over 7 organizations. The striking lack of media and performing arts nonprofits is strange, given the large number of musicians, actors, dancers, film and television professionals, and media businesses that call Ventura home.

Ventura arts nonprofits are small in size as well. The VC Arts Impact Report tells us that, "85% percent of organizations employ less than 10 people," and thirty percent are run without any paid staff at all. The impact of this is reflected in both the revenue and spending amounts claimed on IRS Form 990s, which the LAI considers to be "a direct measure of cultural programming" available in a county. In 2009, Ventura arts nonprofits spent only $42 per county resident, compared with the stave average of $75 per person. Arts spending in counties with similar demographics is almost three and a half times that amount.

The lack of government arts dollars coming into the county is jaw dropping. Wallner asserts that, "we are not getting our share of public money, whether its city, county, state or federal." According to the LAI, the NEA has awarded Ventura County just under $40 per 10,000 residents annually between 2005 to 2009. The national annual average is $297 and the regional average is $411. The total sum granted to Ventura County by the California Arts Council from 2003 to 2009 is a mere 45 cents per resident, while other California counties receive over $3 per person. The reasons for this are not clear. Funders have been criticized for not reaching out to and supporting more suburban counties like Ventura. Ventura organizations may not even be applying. There is huge competition and applying for a grant is a lot of work, especially for organizations relying mostly on volunteer staff. Wallner wonders if proposals being submitted are strong enough. "The trend in funding is innovation," he says, "and I think we may be behind the curve on that."

The call for innovation in the arts is mirrored in the declining attendance numbers and tickets sales plaguing arts institutions across the country, with Ventura County following the same trend. The field itself has been forced to redefine its understanding of participation in the arts and to include informal arts experiences, such as church choirs and school plays, as well as personal arts creation, and the use of electronic media. Accounting for this broader spectrum of participation, the NEA's recent "Survey of Public Participation in the Arts" finds that 75 percent of Americans engage in the arts, more actively, creatively and more personally than we were able to imagine.

The Ventura reports track the more traditional participation numbers and both find the county lags behind others in museum and performing arts attendance. The LAI does tally popular entertainment attendance and arts-related purchases by the public, which give us a glimpse into the types of commercial and informal engagement happening, Ventura residents spend about $344 per year, per person, on combined purchases of recorded media, musical instruments, reading materials, photography equipment, movies and concerts- well above the national average of $267. This is good news. Spending on commercial entertainment should not be seen as competition but as an indicator of the public's appetite for cultural experiences and a call for artists and organizations to re-think how they connect with their audiences. "We need to be constantly looking at how to connect to them," claims Wallner, and in this way, "innovation is not a luxury, it is a mandate."

In Ventura County, time and again that appetite can be seen in the generous donations to capital campaigns. Ventura arts donors rally to support important efforts and bold ventures, such as the Rubicon Theater, the creation of the Bell Arts Factory on Ventura's westside, the renovation of the Libbey Bowl in Ojai, the expansion of the Ventura Museum, or the development of Ventura's mixed-income artists' colony, the WAV. According to the LAI, over 11 percent of Ventura residents support the arts while the national average is just under 9 percent. This is on par with counties of similar household incomes, but well above all other socio-economic and demographic comparisons. In a similar vein, 26 percent of all Ventura County residents contribute to public broadcasting, compared to 19 percent in counties with similar income averages, and 18 percent of the national population.

The real threat to the health of the arts in region is the lack of capacity on the part of local organizations to effectively manage and cultivate this generosity. One of the most important lessons learned through the ArtsLIVE initiative is, "the fact of few or no paid staff is a challenge and obstacle to donor development," as stated in their program review. While country residents spend more on arts-related purchases and donate more to cultural causes, area nonprofits are earning almost four times less from program revenue than counties with similar population groups, and bringing in less than half of the regional average of donated revenue. Nonprofits in counties with comparable household incomes draw more than two and a half times the donations that Ventura County organizations are getting.

The ArtsLIVE program review also reveals, "there is little communication, and far too little collaboration among arts organizations in Ventura County," which they think is largely due to limited staffing. In some instances, Ventura organizations also resist professionalizing and capacity building. I have heard a board member claim that creating systems and policies is like "corporatizing the arts," and an arts leader call arts consultants "carpet baggers," out loud, in a city meeting. When the city of Ventura wanted to partner with the California Cultural Data Project (CDP) so its organizations would be counted in their national research, it took two years of offering free trainings to get nonprofits to participate, even though doing so made them eligible for grants from the state and other foundations that require it.

In their defense, the smallness of the organizations has put them in a desperate position. Participating in the CDP requires heavy duty bookkeeping, and that expertise is scarce. Some organizations comment that attending VCCF capacity building workshops is not that effective because they can be general and take time and focus away from the mountain of other tasks. This crisis is exacerbated by the low number of field service organizations supporting the arts in the region coupled with Ventura organizations' lack of participation in national arts networks and guilds. This creates isolation from national discourse and shared knowledge about best practices. "We are at constant risk of being provincial," Wallner asserts, "if we don't tap into the national conversation."

However, the capacity, funding, and participation challenges actually point to good news. The need for the arts to think innovatively about their audiences and businesses models is a reflection of the deeper need across all sectors to develop new solutions to meet the challenges of our time. The arts can and should lead in this. The reports remind us that the comfort of remaining small and overworked ultimately undermines effectiveness and viability. But, as the ArtsLIVE initiative discovered, small investments made in infrastructure can have a a big impact. Organizations that set up data tracking or donor relations databases, added a Paypal button to a website, or changed board policies to require that members 'give or get' donations as part of their responsibilities, experiences a "tipping point," in growth "that was modest but profound," says Jensen of VCCF.

The fact that capacity and participation challenges affect all organizations, regardless of size and discipline, means that there is grounds for articulating a common cause. This is the most crucial next step. According to Margaret Travers, executive director of the Ventura County Arts Council, the biggest problem facing artists, for a long time now, is their inability to recognize themselves as a constituency. "In order for our arts community to have a more sustainable future, I think we need to make ourselves more visible as a sector -- inclusive of all cultural disciplines," she continues, "I see a benefit to forming an advocacy team whose sole purpose is to be the voice for the positive effect the arts have on our children's education, our economic vitality, and our quality of life."

The LAI and VC Arts Impact reports lay the foundation for reframing the arts as an ecology of creativity- a spectrum of activities and interwoven relationships that touch all sectors of Ventura life, including commerce, government, education and culture. We can and should think of ourselves as a unified force helping to drive economic development, social vibrancy, civic engagement and personal growth, as well as advocate for the necessary conditions to deliver what we are capable of contributing to the region. By joining forces and creating our own clarion call, we can ensure that all the residents of Ventura County have access to and benefit from the arts- as well as have a stake in its success.

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