Susan Jennings, Roanoke's arts and culture coordinator, discusses public art's role in economic development.

Susan Jennings next to the

Susan Jennings next to the "Trojan Dog" sculpture outside Fire Station No. 7 on Memorial Avenue in Roanoke.

In many ways, downtown Roanoke is a mix of the business and arts communities. During the lunch hour, professionals in suits and ties mingle with vendors on the market selling homemade jewelry and original photographs.

Susan Jennings, Roanoke's arts and culture coordinator, says the arts have an even greater impact on the business community that involves recruiting tourists, employees and employers themselves to the region.

The Roanoke Arts Commission, a 15-member, city council-appointed body, has been working with Jennings, the city and the public to create an arts and culture plan that has goals of supporting local artists and organizations and expanding the public arts program.

Jennings talked recently about the role arts and culture play in Roanoke and what plans the commission has for the future.


How do the arts affect the business community?

We see nationally that the communities that invest in the arts see benefits through lots of ways: economic growth, jobs, quality of life. That positions those areas to compete not just on a national but on a global basis.

We're seeing with the economic development partnership and the chamber here, they more frequently use arts and culture organizations ... as one of the tools they use when they recruit businesses to the area. Same with the convention and visitors bureau here -- they definitely use arts and culture ... when they want to draw tourists to the area.

So you have the impact of businesses locating here, of tourists wanting to come here to visit and also individuals looking for places to live, because these days so much work can be done from the home or online that very often people look for where they want to live before they look for a job. ...

Arts and culture isn't the only factor or even the most important factor that drives a business or individual to locate in an area, but I think we are seeing more and more that it is becoming a very important part of the mix of giving that quality of life that businesses want to see for their employees and individuals want to see when they locate somewhere.


How do you measure the impact of the arts on a community?

It's definitely hard to measure. There have been a lot of national surveys. Americans for the Arts is renowned for collecting economic impact figures, and there have been several studies that have been done on public art and what kind of impact that has on the community.

So much of it is not measurable. But if you look at cities where people want to go visit -- for instance, my husband and I are planning our first visit to Chicago in September, and the main reason we want to go is because of the arts and cultural events, the theater district, the great Millennium Park with the bean, the most famous public art sculpture in the world.

But it's hard to measure except for anecdotally in a lot of cases. But Americans for the Arts does do economic impact studies ... and the impact is in the hundreds of billions. So there are some things that can be measured. Locally, the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge has done local economic impact studies to show the impact that the local organizations are having on the region.


How can Roanoke continue to strengthen its arts community?

That really falls right in with what the Roanoke Arts Commission and the planning department and I have been working on for the last year, developing Roanoke city's first arts and cultural plan.

What we've looked at is: How can the city help sustain arts and cultural organizations and, in turn, how can those organizations help the city with its goals of revitalization, economic development and increased tourism? The city already supports arts and cultural organizations financially to a great extent, but we are seeing there are a lot of other things we can do. It can be technical assistance workshops, helping with volunteer recruitment, helping with marketing. Maybe there are some ordinance changes we can make that will make it easier for individual artists to do some of the events that they do from the ground up. I think everybody thinks back to busking on the corners and how vibrant that is in some cities, and we're looking at maybe some changes in some ordinances here that might make that easier to do. ...

So there are a lot of ways we can support individual artists ... as well as the big organizations outside just the financial arena.


Do you have any specific goals as arts coordinator?

One thing that we have seen come out of the arts and cultural plan ... people love the public arts program but they want to see it expand into more regions of the city. We've heard that people would like to have artwork that responds to social issues, and they would like to have an art park where anybody could go and do their artwork. So expanding the public art program is definitely one of our goals and one of my goals.

Looking at how the city funds arts and cultural organizations ... and are there some ways that we can financially support individual artists? There's a great group of artists ... doing this project called PROject proJECT. They're doing light shows downtown, and so we've been working with them on how to make that happen. So one of our big goals is to support these, for lack of a better term, guerrilla art movements, things that artists are getting together and doing. Support them because that's what makes the city different and exciting. ...

Also, I think one of our goals is to support arts education. We've worked in the past with the school system. ... This year for the first time we actually purchased a piece of student artwork to add to our public art collection from a show the city schools did. ... We have something in the works now with a professor at Hollins that we could maybe connect her students with the school system here. So making those connections with the colleges in the region. I think very often we don't take advantage of that talent that's right around here. ...

Newsweek has done a survey about creativity and how it's dropping among our students in the United States, but yet employers are increasingly saying creativity is one of the major factors they look for when they employ people. It gives them that competitive edge. And if you look, innovative businesses are the ones that are really making strides. There's a disconnect there, so what can we do to help that disconnect by developing creativity in students and therefore helping with work force development down the road?


What do you say to people to persuade them that supporting the arts community is important?

I can pull out all the economic impact figures and the education impact figures about [how] students who participate in the arts perform better ... but I think really what people relate to is arts in their own community and how the arts affect them.

I use that example about where do you like to go visit? ... What do you do there? They go to museums, they visit art exhibits. All you have to do is kind of reverse it with people. ... Would you want to live in a community that didn't have a vibrant arts scene? So rather than pulling out the education and the economic figures, now I try to bring it down to a personal level. We're learning that people really connect with the arts in their own neighborhoods.