How many people visit Brown County for the arts?

How many people do the arts employ here?

What do the arts mean to Nashville’s economy, and how could this sector be better supported?

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These are some of the questions the Nashville Arts and Entertainment Commission’s intern, Anne Ellis, hopes to answer this summer.

She’s researching the economic impact of the arts and culture in Brown County and looking at how towns similar to Nashville fund their active arts and culture scenes.

She’s been reviewing local studies conducted over the past decade or so about those topics and following up on recommendations they made. She’s gathering data from the state and other sources.

She’s also working with the Brown County Visitors and Convention Bureau to survey visitors about why they are here, starting with the July Village Art Walk.

“A lot of people were not in town for arts and culture, arts and entertainment events, but I kind of talked to them about what do they think arts and entertainment is and a lot of them were saying some things people don’t normally consider arts and entertainment,” Ellis said.

“People who are buying specialty fudges in shops downtown, to me, that is an art.”

Her work comes free to the town through her Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs master’s degree program, said Nashville Arts & Entertainment Commission President Catherine Martin.

Nashville Town Manager/Economic Development Director Scott Rudd hopes the project will yield solid data on economic impact, like how many ice cream cones are sold or how many hotel rooms are booked per year because people are here for the arts.

Eventually, that could translate into greater funding to support the arts.

“If we can get to that point where we understand the true footprint of the arts here, I think we’ll be in the position to have a much more meaningful conversation about how we can grow that part of our county and be much more intentional about how we invest in it,” he said.

“Our area’s natural beauty invites people to reside here as well as visit. It also inspires and nourishes us. To me, supporting our artists and their arts is a ‘win-win’ situation. Both our quality of life and our economy are better off,” Martin said.

The message

About 15 years ago, Brown County was marketed as the Art Colony of the Midwest, but not anymore, said Jane Ellis, executive director of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. (She is not related to intern Anne Ellis.)

“People would come to town and say ‘Where’s the Art Colony?’” Jane Ellis said, as if they were expecting a group of artists living or working together. “As a community, we weren’t necessarily delivering that in a highly visible way.”

In 2009, the visitors bureau began marketing Brown County using the tagline: “Arts, Nature and Adventure.”

About four years ago, surveys showed that scenic beauty and “to get away” were the main reasons people visited Brown County. “‘Escape Comes Naturally’ — that’s our tagline now,” Jane Ellis said.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t coming for the arts without realizing it.

“They are coming here because they know there are a lot of handmade things and you can get unique items, but I don’t know that if you’d ask them if they came here for the arts, I’m not certain they would be like, ‘Oh, yes,’” she said.

If the “average arts visitor” is defined, she thinks that will help the county and town better showcase what there is to do related to all of the arts and draw more people to those attractions.

“Sometimes, using the word ‘art’ is intimidating to people. That’s why I think with this Arts Village, we’re making the arts friendly,” she said.

Supporting assets

The new Arts Village Brown County brochure Jane Ellis said is one of the visitors bureau’s most popular handouts. It lists all arts-related venues, from performance spaces, to exhibits, to handmade goods.

The Brown County Playhouse is an art venue, but it might not be what people think of when they think of “art.”

The theater in downtown Nashville was run by Indiana University for decades before the university closed it in September 2010. A nonprofit local board acquired and reopened it the following fall, and now, the Playhouse offers a mix of movies and live shows.

The Playhouse has an impact on tourism as well as quality of life for residents, said Executive Director Suzannah Zody.

“I am convinced we’re bringing thousands of people back into Nashville,” she said. “I’ve talked to people who said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been in Nashville after dark in decades.’”

Last year, 5,000 movie tickets were sold, and 93 percent of them were for locals. Zody estimates that if half of the ticket-buyers spent $10 in town after the show, that would mean an additional $25,000 a year in revenue for local merchants.

The Playhouse also sold 10,000 live performance tickets last year. Thirty-three percent of ticketholders came from within an hour of Nashville, and 13 percent were locals.

“If half of those people spend an average of $50 (in town), that’s $115,000 a year for the town,” she said.

Last October, the Brown County Art Gallery on Main Street opened an 8,700-square-foot addition. The $2 million project, funded by donors and grant money, included an education studio, exhibit hall, galleries, lobby and art collections.

“Attendance has, I would say, doubled if not more since the addition and all of the events,” said Lyn Letsinger-Miller, president of the Brown County Art Gallery Foundation.

About 1,000 people attended the opening of the Indiana Heritage Arts Show and a memorial for local artist Dick Ferrer the weekend of June 11-12.

In addition to showcasing the county’s art history, the gallery is bringing in visitors who can spend a significant amount of money, Miller said.

The gallery foundation set a goal this year of $70,000 for a consignment art sale and they’ve already sold $60,000 worth of art, Miller said.

“They’re not in here buying ice cream,” she said of gallery visitors. “If you come up here, you’re not just strolling down the street looking for a bathroom. You’re coming in here for art.”

Next door to the Playhouse, the Brown County Art Guild reported having around 13,000 visitors last year and selling $100,000 worth of fine art.

Executive Director Scott Hutchinson said the average guild visitor is a day-tripper. But some events, such as the Brown County Art Colony weekend and Guild 16, are designed to get people to spend the night.

For an upcoming workshop at the gallery, Miller said they worked with the Brown County Inn to book about 10 hotel rooms.

Hutchinson believes the county’s art history has an economic impact, too.

“I am from Kentucky, and when you find a town that has 1,000 people, you don’t find 250 artists, 250 small-business owners,” he said.

“As far as economic development is concerned, we have a unique history. We have contemporary artists and musicians that are as good as anywhere else, so when someone comes to enjoy what we have to offer, they got to eat, they got to spend the night, they got to buy gasoline, they want to buy souvenirs.”

Zody hopes Anne Ellis’ project will get the arts more recognition from local government. Currently, the Nashville Town Council budgets $10,000 to $20,000 for the arts, but Rudd and others would like to see that grow.

There is no tax-based funding for the arts in the county’s budget, but the commissioners did vote to give teen group BETA $1,500 for supplies for an art project, Brown County Commissioner Diana Biddle said.

“Tourism is the factory in this town. We don’t have a Toyota factory, which I’m glad we don’t. This is what the majority of jobs here in this county are based on: tourism,” Zody said.

“If arts and entertainment is feeding tourism, it has to be taken seriously.”

Before her internship ends Aug. 12, Ellis will share a written report with Rudd and the arts and entertainment commission. It also may also be presented to the town council and county commissioners during their meetings, she said.

Studying the arts in Brown County

This isn’t the first time a study has been done on how the arts and culture of Brown County affect the economy.

Studies from Ball State University (2005), Indiana University (2008) and others made recommendations.

One was to create an arts center for workshops that amateurs and professional artists could enjoy.

Lyn Letsinger-Miller said the Brown County Art Gallery’s recent 8,700-square-foot addition meets that recommendation. It includes an art education studio.

“Everybody talked about it; we went ahead and built one,” she said. “That was really the dream of the early artists. It wasn’t just about a gallery. They wanted it to be a central place where people come.”

Another recommendation was to create a job for a person to coordinate all art organizations and artists.

Miller said the local art scene still lacks a “collective vision.”

“You have the dreamers and the historians, then you have the people who are trying to make money. It really should be together. The historians need money being made so that they can have donors to their projects, and their projects can hopefully bring people to spend money for the economic aspects of this,” she said.

The Ball State report recommended creating partnerships among artists and art organizations to help marketing of the county.

Partnerships are beginning to form. For example, the Brown County Art Gallery and Brown County Playhouse were both host sites for the Art Alliance Brown County’s Arts Village Cinefest in June.

Other recommendations included making the arts heritage of Brown County more noticeable to visitors and increasing the amount of artistic offerings throughout the county.