Almost 35 years ago, a small cadre of journalists and musicians held a series of secret confabs at the offices of the Austin Chronicle, the city’s venerable alternate weekly newspaper. They recognized the city and surrounding Hill Country’s bounty of singing and songwriting talent, the burgeoning and independent filmmaking streak emerging from the University of Texas, and the nascent technology industry taking root with the founding of Dell Computers.
Within a year the group went public, announcing the first South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Music served as the uniting force, but enriching the community was part and parcel of its DNA. Within seven years film and technology joined the mix, and the little festival-that-could had grown into one of the world’s premier incubators for ideas and creative careers. What’s more, the appeal of the Central Texas region’s rolling landscape, outdoor recreational opportunities, indie vibe, and mix of history, museums, food, and cultural touchstones drew new residents and billions in investment.
Coastal Georgia has all the makings for a similar art-music-technology hub.
Over the past three decades, our residents’ and visitors’ interests have evolved. Folks are increasingly drawn to the inimitable features and nuance of place.
The region represents a prominent segment of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which weaves another richly detailed thread into the Creative Coast’s historic tapestry: Black history. For instance, Landmark Historic District tours offer a 21st century perspective featuring Black history from the Underground Railroad to the 20th century civil rights movement and they are growing in popularity. Footsteps of Savannah walking tours, the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, the Pinpoint Heritage Museum, the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters, Underground Tours of Savannah, Laurel Grove Cemetery and more tell stories of Savannah from a Black perspective, covering 300 years of slavery in this area, the differences between plantation and urban slavery, the indelible marks of Gullah Geechee culture in coastal foodways, music and language, and the life stories of heroes such as Susie King Taylor and W.W. Law. McIntosh and Glynn counties both have significant landmarks and abundant storytellers who illuminate the Gullah Geechee traditions. Our region would do well to make note of the way South Carolina has embraced the corridor as both a cultural and economic engine.
The Cultural Heritage Society and Telfair Museums already operate from a collaborative perspective, offering diverse experiences under their respective umbrellas. The Jepson Center for the Arts attracted 84,440 visitors to its contemporary exhibits in 2019. And, many gallerists, painters, sculptors, and other visual artists also call the region home. Gallery director Carmen Aguirre explains that pre-pandemic, the area’s galleries experienced unprecedented visitation from both locals and tourists. Many galleries adapted to the pandemic by taking their work and tours online. Aguirre expects the gallery scene to rebound, largely because Savannah is a port city and "attracts a bohemian crowd."
The Savannah Stopover Music Festival, conceived as a waystop to SXSW, and the Savannah Music Festival (SMF) bring in emerging and established talent that enriches our own wealth of singer-songwriters, selling collectively more than 30,000 tickets to performances in local venues. The SMF sponsors education programs for more than 10,000 local school children in addition to 1,000 performing artists. Add in the Savannah Voice Festival and the American Traditions competition, and our music scene reaches all tastes.
The annual Savannah Book Festival, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, Beaufort, South Carolina’s Pat Conroy Literary Center, and vibrant independent bookshops strengthen our coastal literary legacy.
Front Porch Improv’s new theater is home to an annual comedy festival, weekly shows and classes, and hosts theater companies that have long needed a stage.
The growing number of film and television productions, which are beginning again after a pandemic-induced hiatus, could provide a platform for igniting homegrown screenwriting and show-running careers, building upon what the Savannah College of Art and Design offers its students.
The inventory is extensive. Now, if only we could share resources, marketing, and a common purpose to harness the possibilities.
According to the State of Georgia’s 2018 report on Coastal Georgia tourism, 15.10 million visitors arrived in the region comprising Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn, Camden, Charlton, Brantley and Ware counties. The most popular activities were cultural ones: historic tours, museums and art exhibits, live music, and outdoor recreation. According to Visit Savannah, the Savannah area alone welcomed some 14.5 million day and overnight visitors, who spent nearly $3,000,000,000 (yes, that’s three billion) on food, lodging, shopping, and other activities like the Savannah Music Festival.
In its 2015 economic impact analysis, "Beyond Tourism," the Historic Savannah Foundation reports that for every $1 million spent on historic rehabilitation, almost 1.2 jobs and $62,000 more in income is realized than if the same amount was spent on new construction.
Yet, with all the money our unique creative and cultural offerings bring in, the region’s art and cultural organizations receive little back in public funding.
"Georgia loves tourists, but it doesn’t invest heavily in what attracts (them)," says Patrick Kelsey, executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Chatham County (ACACC). Kelsey is a former New Yorker who has worked both on- and off-Broadway. Today, besides leading ACACC, he is a professor of business at SCAD and CEO of Georgians for the Arts. He also serves as a grant panelist for Georgia Council for the Arts, South Arts, and the City of Savannah.
Georgia usually ranks lowest in the nation for spending on arts and culture, explains Kelsey. Even compared to neighboring states, Georgia doesn’t fare well. "Every other state in the Southeast allocated at least twice what Georgia did for 2020: $.14 per capita. Even Alabama is ahead of us. Alabama."
Even though the city has incorporated arts and culture into its strategic plan, Kelsey doesn’t think Savannah has funded arts and cultural resources adequately. "In its 2020 adopted budget, the City of Savannah included $23 million from lodging tax revenue. But its projected spending on cultural resources was only $1.6 million."
Compare that to Austin, Texas, which allocates 15 percent of the two percent increase in its hotel occupancy tax to the Live Music Fund to help support local musicians who often don’t have health insurance and have a hard time weathering year-over-year increases in the city’s cost of living.
In and around Asheville, North Carolina, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority donated $975,000 in 2018 to arts, culture, and recreational initiatives. The City of Asheville has funded and completed a public art master plan that it heavily promotes as part of its economic development efforts.
And just like Austin and Asheville, Savannah’s arts, culture and history drive tourists and businesses here in the first place.
Of course, our region can’t prosper on tourist dollars alone. "Even a pro-business state like Georgia won’t bring in new (business investments) unless families want to live here," Kelsey says. "In short, arts and culture are just good business."
To his point: "Quality of life" is a top concern for corporate executives who expect to open new facilities within five years. In fact, quality of life ranks even higher than tax exemptions, corporate tax rates, real estate costs, and 21 other concerns, reports Area Development magazine in its first quarter 2020 issue.
Why? Because today’s executives want to attract and keep tech-savvy millennial employees. And most millennials don't want suburban homes or even cars. They’d rather live in interesting neighborhoods near their work and socialize in great restaurants and sidewalk cafes they can walk or bike to. That’s millennial culture. That’s their quality of life.
But, it’s not just millennials looking for more. An American for the Arts 2018 survey of 3,020 adults found that 87 percent rank culture and the arts as important to their quality of life. And 82 percent say the arts are important to local business and the economy.