Arts Council on a mission to make arts and culture critical to the vitality of Baton Rouge

The Business Report

In April of this year, the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge rolled the dice on a new project: retooling its longstanding Fest-for-All arts festival into a mixed-genre event and relocating it from its traditional location on North Boulevard to River Road, closer to the Mississippi River. The new festival’s intention, says Arts Council President and CEO Renee Chatelain, was to fortify Baton Rouge’s brand as a river city with an indigenous and evolving arts scene. She and her team named it Ebb and Flow.

Along with the traditional festival trappings of live music, food and an arts market, the event also included dozens of other arts forms, including live poetry, printmaking, a site-specific dramatic performance on the Mississippi River dock and the Human Library, an international trademarked event in which live individuals pose as “books” and are checked out by others interested in hearing their life stories.

Despite foul weather shuttering one day of the two-day event, Chatelain declared it a successful start and is already planning to expand next year’s festival. Going forward, Ebb and Flow will include another major river from around the world in its theme, says Chatelain, which she hopes will inspire artists and build tourism. The Amazon is the featured river in 2018.

“We feel like this is one of the events that is going to help Baton Rouge create its own distinct brand, out of the shadow of New Orleans and Lafayette,” says Chatelain, a former attorney, dance instructor and educator who took over the Arts Council in 2016. “All of a sudden, we’re really starting to see a blueprint laid out for us for how this city can become a great arts community.”

For Chatelain, Ebb and Flow was a test balloon for a more sweeping project she launched this fall, a revised mission and set of goals for the Arts Council that declares the organization will take a more active role in building the city’s creative capacity and tracking the economic impact of arts and culture. She has spent the past few months holding meetings to present the new vision to stakeholders and funders.

“We see the arts as being one leg of four that hold this community up,” says Chatelain. “The city’s foundational cornerstones are business and industry, government, education, and arts and culture. The arts need to be on equal footing for Baton Rouge to truly thrive.”

Since the Arts Council was founded in 1973, it has served as the regional arts administrator for the 11-parish Capital Region. It’s also the official arts agency of city-parish government since arts and culture is not a function of local government, under Baton Rouge’s Plan of Government, as it is in many other American cities.

The Arts Council has largely functioned as a flow-through organization for state arts funding for major local arts organizations and as an advocate for regional arts and culture, but in recent years it has added more of its own programming. The Arts Council says it impacts more than 200,000 people through events like Ebb and Flow, Sunday in the Park and the River City Jazz Masters series, and that it connects more than 250 Louisiana artists around the state to work in school- or community-based projects.

Last year, Chatelain and her team launched Creative Relief, a shelter-based arts program that kept artists working and entertained sheltered families after epic flooding swept through parts of the region. Creative Relief is now a formal template for statewide disaster response.

Now, says Chatelain, the Arts Council plans to also take a more assertive role in demonstrating how the arts impact local economic development and contributes to Baton Rouge’s ability to attract and keep talent and investment. But while it seems obvious that the arts are fundamental to quality of life, hard data demonstrating their impact hasn’t been compiled for the Capital Region.

Nationwide, the arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion in economic activity in 2015, according to the Americans for the Arts’ Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 study released earlier this year. That includes $63.8 billion in spending by arts and culture organizations and $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences—things like having dinner and paying the babysitter when you go out to see a show. The report—the fifth of its kind produced by the national arts advocacy organization—also found that the arts supported 4.6 million jobs in the U.S. and generated $27.5 billion to local, state and federal governments that had invested a collective $5 billion in arts allocations.

Unearthing similar data for Baton Rouge, says Chatelain, is a new priority of the Arts Council.

“We’ve done a lot of valuable studies over the years, especially Create Baton Rouge, which told us a lot about what comprises our arts and culture sector,” says Chatelain. “Now, we want to drill down and find out more about impact.”

Arts organizations like the Manship Theatre, the 300-seat live performance venue at the Shaw Center for the Arts on Third Street, also lack hard data on economic impact. But the Manship Theatre has seen attendance increase from 17,000 annual patrons in 2005 to 24,000 in 2010. Residual economic impact is palpable, says Executive Director Melanie Couvillon.

“When we have an event, the restaurants around us feel it,” says Couvillon. “They come and check on our ticket sales so they can anticipate crowd size.”

Moreover, says Couvillon, the Manship Theatre books mostly outside talent for its music, comedy and dramatic performances, impacting local hotels and the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, which performers are asked to use.

Indeed, the Shaw Center for the Arts has been a fundamental part of downtown Baton Rouge’s steady revitalization since the mid-1990s, and a core reason why Third Street now brands itself as an arts strip. The Third Street Songwriters Festival, held annually in April in multiple venues along the street, is building steam as a dynamic event that attracts songwriters and performers from Louisiana and Nashville. Along with Ebb and Flow and the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, also held in April, Chatelain sees a “triple threat” of homegrown events she believes will help Baton Rouge become a cultural destination.

“We see these events as having a ton of potential in attracting visitors,” she says.

The Americans for the Arts survey also included regional data across the country demonstrating local impact in 341 cities, counties and regions. Lafayette was the only Louisiana community to supply data, and it could serve as an interesting comparison for Baton Rouge. The city is smaller in population, but it has long featured two notable annual festivals, the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in the fall, which attracts 150,000 attendees and the Festival International de Louisiane in the spring, which lures in some 300,000 visitors. The Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 places economic impact in Lafayette at $16.9 million annually.

Last month, voters in Lafayette passed a rededication of a millage that will pump $500,000 annually to the new CREATE Initiative. CREATE stands for culture, recreation, entertainment, the arts, tourism and economy, and its intention is to brand Lafayette as a cultural destination for a worldwide audience, says Mayor-President Joel Robideaux. The tax package also supported increases to drainage, a big priority for voters after flooding swept through the area last summer. Robideaux sold the proposal by suggesting a big return on investment as Lafayette uses the annual tax allocation to fortify its brand as a vibrant arts and culture hub.

Cheryl Castille, executive director of the Louisiana Division of the Arts, says Lafayette’s leaders have recognized the importance of the arts as an economic development driver. “The rededication was smart thinking on the part of the administration because it directly linked the arts with economic development, tourism and regional planning,” Castille says. “And Lafayette recognizes that they will need to leverage that $500,000 to really make a big impact.”

There’s little doubt among economic developers that arts and culture is part and parcel of quality of life. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has spent that past few years zeroing in on perceptions about the Baton Rouge area, and how those perceptions impact the decisions of individuals and businesses considering a move to the region.

“Talent attraction is a key indicator of economic performance,” says BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp. “We know that it’s a lot easier to convince someone who has a personal history with Baton Rouge to return here than it has been to attract someone who has no knowledge. That’s where we need to be able to paint a picture of a community that has the kind of amenities that make people want to come and stay.”

Knapp points to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community survey, a three-year study completed in 2010 that revealed factors that made residents feel attached to the communities they lived in, and how this community magnetism supported economic health. The survey was conducted in partnership with Gallup and focused on the Knight Foundation’s 26 target cities.

The survey found that three consistent factors drove residents to feel attached to the places they live: social offerings, aesthetics and openness. The more these factors existed, the survey found, the easier it was for a city to recruit newcomers and engage residents in participating in the community’s advancement.

Part of the Arts Council’s new strategy, says Chatelain, is to broaden participation of the arts not just in traditional settings, but across the city in classrooms, houses of faith, community organizations and neighborhoods. National arts consultant and Scotlandville native Margie Reese says this is long overdue.

“Baton Rouge needs a ‘big idea,’ and that big idea is going to have to be tearing down neighborhood borders, crossing the bridge, crossing the freeway, going from north Baton Rouge to south, and old to new,” she says. “We have to have conversations about all forms of cultural expression and tradition.”

Reese recently helped Chatelain create the first phase of the Arts Councils’ Firehouse Project, a program that opens up historic firehouses in Scotlandville, Mid City and downtown Baton Rouge as neighborhood arts hubs. It’s in keeping with Chatelain’s attitude that the arts should bubble up organically, often in unexpected settings.

“There is so much happening in this community that you see in other better-known places, and there is so much talent and interest,” Chatelain says. “We’re starting to take more risks.”

Chatelain points to the installation of Icelandic sculpture Steinunn Thorarinsdottir’s well-known series, “Borders,” now positioned in various spots along the Mississippi River levee, as evidence of the city’s growth as an arts community. There has also been a surge of indigenous makers selling their wares online and at makers’ fairs, an uptick in podcasts focused on Baton Rouge’s cultural identity and increase in local versions of edgy arts and culture phenomenon happening nationwide.

For example, Baton Rouge is an official community for PechaKucha, an art form that started in Tokyo in 2003 in which artists and designers must present 20 images in 20 seconds. Local artist Thien-Kieu Lam, who helped organize the internationally-known “Human Library” for the Ebb and Flow festival, also helped launch a local event called “Dear Friend,” in which performers give dramatic readings of historic letters. It is based on a London event called “Letters Live.”

“I think people are pushing the boundaries a little bit more in Baton Rouge,” says Lam. “It’s great to see different events getting a foothold. I think part of it is coming from homegrown artists, and part is the influx of people moving to Baton Rouge.”

Theatre Baton Rouge Artistic Director Jenny Ballard agrees the mood is shifting in Baton Rouge, pointing to the strong reception of TBR’s provocative 2017-2018 season. Hair, staged this fall, included a lengthy nude scene. Gidion’s Knot, to be presented in May, explores a complicated incident of teenage suicide. And Cabaret, shown in March, gets at the political tone in Berlin between the two world wars.

“We’ve given our audiences too little credit for too long,” says Ballard. “They want to be challenged and they want to see things that can help them make sense of the world.”

The theater, located near Bon Carré and rebranded from its past identity as Baton Rouge Little Theater in 2013, has seen steady increases in individual ticket sales. Last year, says Ballard, sales were up 30%.

For her part, Chatelain is planning to continue educating groups on the Arts Council’s new strategic priorities and identifying funding partners to make them happen.

“We’re the Capital City,” Chatelain says. “What any strong city does is to identify how the arts are integral to the local brand and then push them to be as prosperous as they can be.” 

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