The Bigger Picture

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art furthers the mission of making New Orleans a magnet for cultural tourists.



If all goes according to plan, the next 10 months will see the opening of three major arts attractions in our fair city. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art kicks things off this Saturday, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art should open around the end of the year, and the Louisiana ArtWorks will open its doors in spring 2004. While it's impossible to rate the cultural value of such developments, there is another marker that's much easier to read: economic impact.

"New Orleans nonprofit arts organizations generate over $300 million in economic activity every year. That's the equivalent of 10,523 jobs," says Shirley Trusty Corey, president and CEO of the Arts Council of New Orleans. She's quoting from a recent study on the arts and economic prosperity conducted in a partnership between the Arts Council and Americans for the Arts, a national organization. "We found that out-of-towners spend more. We also found that those who go to cultural events spend more than those who go to other kinds of events."

Which brings into focus an elusive but highly desirable quarry. "The cultural tourist is the kind of tourist we'd like to see more of in this city," says Ogden Museum Director Rick Gruber. "We want them to go home and tell their friends to come visit New Orleans."

The Ogden Museum hopes to play a significant role in drawing visitors from afar. "After the opening, we'll be having a series of exhibits on the arts of certain states, from Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina," continues Gruber. "Those states will be working with us to send us their audiences. And those visitors will also be going to NOMA to see the Bicentennial or Egyptian exhibit, they'll be dining in the finest restaurants, they'll be staying at boutique hotels, and they'll be shopping on Magazine Street."

The arts scene has gotten a timely boost from the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation's niche campaign promoting the city's cultural attractions. This $550,000 effort reached out to leisure tourists throughout the country by showcasing the range and depth of the city's museums, arts institutions and galleries. TV ads, newspaper and magazine inserts, direct mail, and e-newsletters have spread the word all summer.

The campaign grew out of local acknowledgement that New Orleans needs to tell the nation that there's more to the city than Mardi Gras. "I think many people outside the city don't realize how deep the cultural and historical traditions are here, and how accessible they are," says Gruber. "I think we're doing a lot to change that. The next year or two will make a huge difference. New Orleans should be viewed as one of the most important cultural destinations in the nation."

Sandy Shilstone, president and CEO of the Tourism and Marketing Corporation, says that test groups responded well to the arts campaign. "They told us we don't ever have to mention Bourbon Street again, it's branded on people's minds," she says with a smile. "It's not that we want to pull away from New Orleans being an exciting, sophisticated adult destination. But we want to show that there's so much more to see and do in this city, whether it's the family attractions or the cultural attractions."

Everyone stresses that the benefits of this kind of advertising and attention are spread out over the entire arts industry, even when a few institutions are highlighted. "We've got the CAC anchoring the Warehouse District and 128 galleries," says Corey. "We all refer to it as the Museum District, and that's catching on. The whole field is being valued more." Another sign of the times was the establishment two years ago of an arts and entertainment industry cluster by MetroVision, the economic development arm of the Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Corey, who has worked with the Arts Council for 20 years, says the governmental recognition of the arts' role in economic development "has taken several quantum leaps. In 1983, when Edwin Edwards was still governor, the arts budget for the entire state was $800,000." When Edwards tried to use that money for another purpose, arts councils from around the state banded together to form an advocacy group. The group lobbied the Legislature for funds and raised awareness on the importance of the arts. "There's nothing like common cause and total disaster to bring people together," continues Corey. "We went from $800,000 in 1983 to a high of $5.3 million, and in this year's budget we're at $4.6 million."

One Arts Council project that has received strong support from the state government is the Louisiana ArtWorks, an innovative complex of arts boutiques, cafes and open studios where visitors can watch artists at work. Over nine years, Corey has raised $7 million from the state Legislature toward the total of $26 million required to open the institution. "My whole approach in going to the state Legislature was economic development," says Corey. "I didn't even talk about art for art's sake."

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