Let's talk about the importance of the arts in Rochester

I barely had seated myself at the tables that would serve as one of five break-out discussion groups when Allison Good stood at my shoulder seeking my attention. She held a single sheet of information to share before my facilitator tasks began last Monday evening.  

I scanned the densely typed sheet as Alli explained: In 2000 an independent research project on behalf of Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc. and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce indicated a vision held by many Rochester residents that cultural resources should be celebrated, better promoted, and in return, more visitors will be attracted to Rochester and quality of life would be enhanced. Moreover, a comprehensive planning process would help position Rochester as a cultural destination and a community that values and integrates its arts and cultural assets.

Do the arts have a place at the table?

Now, more than a decade later, the community continues to grapple with the proper role to be played by the arts and cultural resources. Yet, maybe there’s a new link being forged between the arts community and the economic vitality of Rochester.

Stephen Lehmkuhle, chancellor of the University of Minnesota and relative community newcomer, has become the face and force to lead disparate arts and cultural organizations into a collective and acknowledged economic powerhouse. He asks with sagacity, "Why don’t the arts have a seat at the table?"    


"What is the table?" you ask. The table is situated where many are developing an economic vision of how Future Rochester should look and behave. Already seated at the table are those who are engaged in economic and workforce development. They are creating Rochester’s visionary Downtown Master Plan. They are creating the visionary Destination Medical Community. The "they" are Mayo Clinic, UMR and the at-large businesses that help make up our community leadership.

It is appropriate, Lehmkuhle believes, that the arts also sit at the table, building a creativeeconomy. He has commanded the attention of the arts and cultural community as perhaps none other has in this past decade.

Lehmkuhle is all about changing the conversation about the arts. He cites findings from a presentation at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, "Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development," 2008.  Herewith is a paraphrased summary that supports the notion that the arts and culture-related industries, also known as "creative industries," provide direct economic benefits to communities:

• They create jobs, attract investments, generate tax revenues and stimulate local economies through tourism and consumer purchases.

• They infuse other businesses with creative insight for their products and services, preparing workers to participate in a contemporary workforce.

• They enhance the quality of life, an important complement to community development, enriching local amenities and attracting young professionals to an area.

Strategies to build a creative economy

More than 50 board members representing community arts and cultural organizations accepted Lehmkuhle’s invitation Monday evening to have a conversation about the importance of the arts to Rochester’s future. Welcomed by the Rochester Arts Council’s director Bari Amadio, the assemblage then heard from Chancellor Lehmkuhle. He laid the background and purpose for the meeting. Facilitated discussion groups were organized, and we were off and running.


For 30 minutes, five groups — each assigned a different discussion topic — shared ideas, issues, questions and concerns. UMR students took notes that were shared by facilitators in a wrap-up exercise.    

Was this experience another ill-fated attempt to draw a link between the value of the arts and their positive effect on the local economy? I believe not. The timing is perfect; Lehmkuhle’s leadership is evident; many arts board members are invigorated.

Here are the broad strategies to build a creative economy:


• Inventory our cultural assets and their economic impact; determine where we have strengths and gaps.

• Incorporate arts and culture into community planning.  Seek input from all arts stakeholders and identify a shared vision to be used to market awareness and value.


• Develop increased support and capacity for the arts and cultural sectors of our community as a competitive edge in business. Rely upon public-private partnerships, networks and all levels of educational services.



• Incorporate the arts in downtown development planning by establishing an Arts and Culture District and public art space concept.

• Incorporate the arts into a tourism strategy, promoting the distinctive brand and uniqueness of Rochester-based arts and culture, stimulating a market for cultural goods and events.€¨

At the end of the evening, I re-scanned the decade-old document that Alli Good had given me. Listed at the end of the report were seven envisioned outcomes. It was a trifle bittersweet to read them, a gathering of great ideas, full of hope and promise. Ten years have passed; most of the envisioned outcomes remain unrealized to their full potential.    

I cannot imagine that today’s initiative to build a creative economy will founder. Creative, fresh leadership and the community rising to a call for action can build on the legacy of the earlier efforts.  A decade from now, we will rejoice in the realization of a vibrant arts and cultural economic community.

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