Staunton’s strategic arts investment and the power of community

Just as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival anchors a comprehensive and lively arts scene in the City of Ashland, Oregon, the American Shakespeare Center has sparked greater investment in the performing arts as an economic tool in the Shenandoah Valley community of Staunton.

Mosedale shines a light on Staunton's strategy backstage at The Dixie.

Soon, in addition to menu of Shakespeare at the Blackfriar’s Playhouse, community leaders hope to offer visitors contemporary theater. The Staunton Performing Arts Center (SPAC), founded in 2001, has a $13.5 million plan to reinvest in the Dixie Theater and the Arcadia Building.  As a model, SPAC Executive Director Judy Mosedale and other community leaders point to Ashland.

This investment comes at a time when participation in live arts events is on the decline.  Last week the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reported survey results showing that in 2008 about 35 percent of U.S. adults attended an arts performance (down from 40 percent), and that the average age of attendees is older than the average age of the population.  Meanwhile, it also shows that more of us are downloading performances online. 

So how can  the arts and culture strategies of Virginia communities curb that trend?

One model might be the sports audience.  We watch football on TV, yet fans still pack into stadiums to sit in less comfort, with a poorer view of the action than they can get from home.  But they also get something else in a stadium with tens of thousands of other screaming fans–a sense of shared interest, of community.

In the tourism strategy for investing in the arts, it might be worth asking the question: how can a town or city make a weekend guest actually feel like part of the community? What can attach them to the place as well as the performance? How can we provide an experience they can’t download? And what will keep them coming back for more?