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On Friday, Heidi Marquez Smith will describe why the arts are vital to Fort Worth’s economy and to our collective mental well-being. Courtesy of Heidi Marquez Smith

Arts and culture have long been a driving force for local tourism. This weekend alone will see the return of in-person events as the Lone Star Film Festival makes its annual appearance, and the second annual Fort Worth River and Blues Festival will bring roots music to Panther Island Pavilion. Both events generate tourists and economic activity for the city of Fort Worth.

Over the past decade, arts and culture have produced $6.1 billion in economic activity for Texas. That’s according to a new report by Texas Cultural Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for arts-centered learning in public schools and arts groups across the state.

On Friday, the nonprofit’s executive director, Heidi Marquez Smith, will make her case for funding the arts at the Women’s Policy Forum 2021 Emerging Issues Symposium at Casa Mañana.

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“I will be talking specifically about the impact of the arts,” she said in a phone interview. “Many of us take it for granted. When we get into our cars, we listen to music, and it’s free. When we walk into a restaurant, there is art on the walls. I will talk about the numbers. That helps policymakers make decisions.”

When giving examples of why cultural events and institutions matter to a city’s economic health, Smith often reminds folks about Boeing’s 2002 decision to snub Dallas when choosing a new headquarters that went to Chicago. The wife of Boeing’s CEO famously found Dallas to be devoid of a robust arts community — something that wouldn’t be true today but may have been fair to say at the time.

“They did not see enough culture in Dallas at the time,” Smith said. “Being in a place that offered cultural opportunities [often means better access to] better public education. Those cities can better attract and retain employees. That was something they recognized that was important for their success.”

Beyond being an economic driver of the local economy and a reliable means of attracting new businesses, arts institutions — art galleries, museums, concert halls, and festivals — bring visitors who then return home to tell their friends what a fun place a city like, say, Fort Worth is.

Statewide, 37% of nonresident travelers engage in arts events, Smith said, meaning that cultural institutions and events are easily the biggest factor tourists consider before hopping on a plane or going for an extended road trip.

At a time when 47 million Americans are dealing with a mental health illness, according to Mental Health America, Smith said public funding for the arts is needed more than ever. Rural schools in Texas, she said, have 70% fewer arts-related courses than urban schools.

Students who attend a cultural event every few months have a 32% lower risk of developing depression, the recent report found.

“When our words fail us, we can draw a picture,” Smith said. “It is very therapeutic to be in the arts. It’s a way to express ourselves. It reinforces kindness, sharing, and empathy. Those are some of the ways that it is important.”

Even with quantifiable benefits for the general public and students, state funding for arts groups lags below what many other states are willing to invest, Smith said. Local elected officials who have been strong advocates of arts funding at the state level include State Sen. Jane Nelson and State Rep. Charlie Geren, she added.

The City of Fort Worth has budgeted $1,786,370 for arts support in 2022, said Wesley Gentle, director of advancement for the Arts Council of Fort Worth, the nonprofit tasked with providing a range of grants for local nonprofit arts groups. The Fort Worth Community Arts Center, Rose Marine Theater, and public art are just some of the benefactors whose funding is managed by the council.

Gentle provided a report by Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy nonprofit, that found charitable giving for the arts had dropped 7.5% since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Over the past three years, total funding from the city has been reduced by over $134,000, partially in response to the city tightening their budget to brace against economic challenges from the pandemic,” Gentle said. “The arts council is greatly appreciative of our many partnerships and financial supporters, including the City of Fort Worth, who help us promote Fort Worth’s remarkable arts community and continue making the arts more accessible to all Fort Worth residents.”

Smith said Fort Worth has a reputation for having a robust and world-class array of museums, concert halls, and festivals. Sustaining those institutions and events requires public tax dollars and individual donors who understand that patronizing the arts doesn’t require endowments or large bequests.

“You don’t have to give monumental amounts to be a philanthropist,” she said. “It could be something as simple as buying a ticket or donating $20 for a membership program.”

The full 2021 State of the Arts Economic Impact Study can be read at TXCulturalTrust.org.

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