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United Way-style funding funnel for for small arts groups?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 27, 2012 - Opera Theater St. Louis’ ability to attract attendees from 45 states and 11 countries is a prime example of how the arts mean business in St. Louis. Out-of-town and local opera lovers, and devotees of St. Louis’ other leading arts institutions patronize not only the arts but spend money in local restaurants, hotels and retail stores.

The financial importance of the local arts scene was recently illustrated in a new Regional Arts Commission report funded by Wells Fargo Advisors. According to the study, arts and cultural institutions pumped more than $582 million into the local economy in 2010. That’s a 4 percent jump compared to 2007.

At a news conference today at the Wells Fargo Learning Center, 2701 Market St., the St. Louis Art Museums’ “Monet’s Water Lilies” and the Missouri Botanical Garden’s current Lantern Festival were also cited as just some of the area's big draws.

Wells Fargo CEO and president Danny Ludeman explained that a vibrant arts community also helps St. Louis lure top business talent from major cities including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Far from being a luxury, the arts are economically essential, Ludeman aid.

“We can’t afford to dismiss a half-billion dollars in economic impact, every year, in St. Louis,” Ludeman said.

The report did not examine the amount of money that specific arts organizations bring to the economy. But in an interview with the Beacon, Ludeman acknowledged the importance of both large and small arts groups. Small arts organizations include three dozen theater companies, numerous art galleries and a variety of community arts groups.

“It’s evident that each organization whether large or small, broad in their focus, narrow in their focus, supports the others,” Ludeman said.

With so many small organizations vying for pieces of a coveted arts funding pie, Ludeman suggested that perhaps these groups would benefit from a umbrella arrangement. A centralized organization for fundraising could operate in a manner that’s similar to the well-known existing model for charitable contributions.

“It’s almost exactly what we have with the United Way,” Ludeman said. “Instead of having every single agency come in to make a request to corporations or individuals, it sometimes raises the tide for all boats if you can rally behind a common brand that provides scale, scope, visibility and resources.”

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