The Positive Effect of Negative Space

The frequently forgotten role of arts in our economy

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By Sara Smith

When discussing grown-up topics like economic foundations, civic planning, and professional development, most artists are deeply familiar with being sidelined, dismissed, and pushed into an odd category of expectations (or lack thereof) around what we do. One faulty assumption is that the arts are, essentially, frivolous. They are thought to be an indulgent activity, something for children, the elite, or simply to be done after the “real” work is completed. 

The arts are often seen civically as a money-drain, and individually almost always as a dead-end profession. They’re rarely understood as the enormous economic and cultural powerhouse that they are. Test your impression of the relationship between art and money with this exercise: Ask your brain to quickly fill this space: “_____ artist.”  

I’ll bet the word wasn’t “thriving.”

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It was telling to me that last month’s issue of the Ink, dedicated to the economy in Tahoe, included no mention of the arts … the Arts and Culture section itself was even omitted. In visual composition, the negative space is created by what is not there. It is the space around an object, but can sometimes be more powerful than the distractingly detailed “positive space” that defines the edges of a thing. Think silhouettes. In music, the spaces between the notes are essential to creating the structure and defining the beat of the song. In this case, the thing excluded gives us a vivid picture of what we, as a culture, consider to be the “real” economy … and that art isn’t a part. 

But that isn’t my story, and it’s actually not representative of the larger reality. Did you know that arts and culture, measured as a specific sector of our national economy, paints a drastically different picture than this limiting view? According to data and analysis from Americans for the Arts:

• Arts and culture represents 4.3% of the nation’s economy — a larger share of GDP than powerhouse sectors such as construction, agriculture, and transportation. Worth remembering is that transportation and agriculture have major federal agencies to ensure their stability and effectiveness and are represented in the President’s Cabinet.

• If the arts industry were a state, its $919.7 billion would be larger than the total state economy of 46 of the 50 states.

In California, it’s even higher. Pre-pandemic, the arts and culture sector represented a whopping 7% of the state’s economy … with only the State of New York surpassing that share. It was also growing more rapidly on average than the overall economy, as shown in the chart below. 

YES, THAT’S IN BILLIONS, FOLKS: Between 2008 and 2019, net productivity of the arts and culture sector has increased by almost 300 billion. Chart courtesy Americans for the Arts.

A slightly different picture is forming, yes? So why is art and culture frequently left out of the conversations at the big kids’ table when discussing civic and economic development? We are complicated, we humans. Let me offer a healthy list of well-earned kudos to my local community. The Town of Truckee has made big strides in officially supporting and valuing the contributions of the arts and culture sector during the past several years, by dedicating significant staff time and resources to the development and adoption of their first Public Art Master Plan and the formation of a committee to further develop the implementation of said plan. Prior to that, the town, the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Truckee-Tahoe, and the Truckee Public Art Commission (a nonprofit organization under the Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District), all banded together with the then-fledgling Truckee Arts Alliance and supported by the Nevada County Arts Council to apply for and secure designation for Truckee as a California Cultural District within the state’s pilot program. 

ARTS FOR THE WIN: Data compiled and visualized from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis before the pandemic reveals the increasing gap, nationwide, in the growth of the arts and culture sector relative to the overall economy. Chart courtesy Americans for the Arts.

Bravo, my community!  We can claim a town full of creative businesses supported by locals and visitors alike, local foundations awarding grants to arts-based nonprofits and projects, and funds being raised for historic museums, libraries, and performing arts centers, not to mention individual artists, makers, and performers supported by relief funds and grants.  

So my argument is not at all that we are not supporting the arts here in our community, but more a questions of the pervasive social and cultural assumptions, deeply embedded in our collective psyche, that cause us to forget or omit entirely the power that is at our fingertips. Perceptions and actions are absolutely changing, but perhaps we can drive it even more quickly, to better address the enormous challenges we face as a rapidly evolving community, state, nation, and globe. My proposal is simple but challenging: Don’t forget the arts, even when it’s not a conversation normally considered within the lane of art and culture. The arts can, and I would argue should, play a vital role in economic development and recovery; civic and social development; environmental protection and reclamation; and the education, health, and wellness sectors. Our culture is the thing that ties us together, that defines our edges, that brings balance and form to our community. It just happens to be a source of innovative solutions and a great financial investment as well.

Perhaps it is a function of who I am and therefore who I know, but anecdotally speaking the most common answer within my circle when asked what they missed over the shut-down, was an almost aching desire for the return of live music, regardless of circumstances in their lives. It’s not because we didn’t have access to music, but because there is something different about a show, a performance, or indeed any event with music. They missed gathering, dancing, celebrating in concert with one another. They missed the experience of being born aloft by the intersection of creative expression and community. So many have lost so much, but something as simple as dancing together can help ease the pain and re-create connection. So, as we ruminate within our changing community about what type of economy, society, and culture we are building moving forward, perhaps take a moment to ask yourself, what did you miss the most during the past year? How has the negative space of that missing thing given focus and lent perspective to the picture of what is valuable in your life, your community, and the future you’d like to create? How can we use every tool in our toolkit, especially art, to build back better, together?  

 ~ Sara L. Smith is a fine artist, public art inclusivity activist, mother, and community arts advocate, working with mixed media, paint, reclaimed materials, and fiber to address issues of environmental impact in wilderness, challenge social systems and inequity, expand rural cultural infrastructure, and create universal access to the arts. You can find Sara’s original work at Riverside Studios in downtown Truckee, Eadington Gallery in Tahoe City, and saralsmith.com.

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