Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Artistic voices raise the creative economy in West Virginia

by Adam Booth and Monica Wilson

Arts Day at the West Virginia State Legislature is coming up on March 2. It is a day for the arts community to showcase its contributions to the West Virginia creative economy. The goal is to raise awareness among our policy leaders on how important it is to invest in the arts for every West Virginian.

We are adding our voices to this chorus.

West Virginia has incredible art venues across the state. Many of these venues are successful, in part, because of the grants awarded from the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture & History. These investments in the creative economy generate positive economic benefits for West Virginia communities.

Research from 2020 shows that arts and cultural economic activity nationwide contributed 4.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), or $876.7 billion. In West Virginia, arts and cultural production added $1.3 billion to the state’s economy, with over 13,000 jobs.

One example of the impact of the arts is the Contemporary American Theater Festival hosted at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown. Shugoll Research conducted a study of the 2018 festival that showed $5.86 million in economic activity supporting over 80 jobs. That included $340,000 to the local government and $745,000 to our state government.

The report states the impact this way: “The Contemporary American Theater Festival … enhances the quality of life for residents and visitors, as well as generating tourist revenue. Both the festival’s direct and indirect economic impact have residual effects that can be felt throughout the local and state economy.”

Another story of the arts community impact can be told from the porch overlooking the Cacapon River. The River House was created in 2017 as an art and music venue from a vacant building on the river bank in Capon Bridge. Today, the River House has two full-time and six part-time employees with $152,000 in gross wages (2022).

The River House’s five-year impact includes 1,238 events, reaching over 1,500 students through field trips, assemblies and after-school programs and over $75,000 in support for local producers.

The success of the River House sparked a revitalization. In the past five years, new businesses have opened in Capon Bridge, including an Appalachian music school, an Air BnB and a store offering West Virginia-made art and craft items. Two local banks in Capon Bridge saw a significant increase in new accounts and loan activity. Recent private investment in renovating older buildings topped $2.2 million, adding to the town’s vitality and tax base.

This incredible community impact could not happen without donations from individuals and foundations as well as state and federal grants.

As professionals in the creative economy, we know the state and local leaders’ support for the arts has been instrumental in our success. Working together, we can continue to build a resilient arts industry and happier, healthier communities across West Virginia.

We would be remiss if we didn’t say thank you to those that have made the arts stronger in West Virginia — from West Virginia’s First Lady Cathy Justice to our local business leaders and volunteers to the excellent staff at the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture & History like Curator Randall Reid-Smith. We appreciate your contributions.

Continued financial support for our West Virginia artists and arts organizations is critical to keep the arts alive and well. We encourage every state, county, city and town leader to support the arts in their community.

On March 2, we ask our West Virginia state legislators to listen to our artists! The arts bring jobs, joy and tourists, strengthening our vibrant and creative West Virginia communities.

Adam Booth is a nationally touring storyteller, musician and educator. He is the 2022 West Virginia Folk Artist of the Year and teaches as an adjunct professor in the Appalachian Studies Program. Monica Wilson is the executive director of The River House, a nonprofit arts and music center. She is also a professional portrait and landscape photographer and business entrepreneur.