PROVIDENCE — Idaho has potatoes and Maine has lobsters. If Gov. Lincoln Chafee has his way, Rhode Island will be the state Americans associate with the creative arts.
The Democratic governor of the nation’s smallest state is calling for a sizable investment in performing arts centers, museums and other facilities that cater to the arts. In a state with shuttered factories, struggling cities and a 9 percent jobless rate, Chafee calls the arts economy a safe bet.
“It’s already here. It’s all around us in this state,” he told The Associated Press. “It just needs a little recognition, a little help. When you look at what the arts can offer the economy, the community, our quality of life, it makes a lot of sense.”
States across the country slashed funding for the arts in the wake of the economic downturn. But as the economy slowly recovers, local arts agencies are seeing renewed interest by officials who see arts and culture as a relatively low-risk economic investment.
Big investments in the arts would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when funding declined precipitously as states around the county grappled with yawning budget deficits. State arts funding — which represents less than $1 per American — was dispensable compared to dollars for education, health care or other needs.
Overall, total funding to state art agencies dropped by 38 percent after the 2001 recession. Funding rebounded slightly after 2004, but then fell 27 percent from 2008 to 2012.
The California Arts Council received $32 million in 2000 and less than $6 million this year. Kansas eliminated its arts commission in 2011 but resurrected it as a much smaller agency a year later.
Startlingly, states like Michigan and Rhode Island — which have some of the nation’s highest unemployment rates — are leading the effort to reverse the trend.
In Rhode Island, Chafee is pushing for a voter referendum on the fall ballot that would authorize $35 million in grants for upgrades to local arts facilities.
Museums, theaters and historic sites could apply for the money, which would be awarded by the state’s Commerce Corp. Organizations seeking the grants would have to contribute some level of matching funding. The question must be approved by lawmakers before going on the ballot.
“This is not National Endowment for the Arts-type funding. This is an investment in facilities — an investment in a sector that has proven to be one of the bright spots in our economy,” said Jon Duffy, chairman of the board at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company.
Chafee is also seeking to increase the state’s general funding for the arts by $1 million.
Top lawmakers say they like Chafee’s focus on the arts but want to carefully review the idea before deciding if the investment is worth the cost. Not everyone is convinced, however. Republicans argue that reductions in taxes and business regulations would do more to increase the overall economy.
“The last thing we should be doing is taking on more debt in this economic climate,” said Republican Party Chairman Mark Smiley.
The proposals come after state lawmakers voted last year to exempt locally made art — including theater performances — in a move to help local artists and attract tourism.
In doing so, Rhode Island became the first state to rescind a sales tax on art.
Michigan has more than quadrupled its arts funding — to an estimated $7 million — since fiscal year 2012. A state economic analysis found that spending on the arts and culture in Michigan exceeded $2 billion a year — more than golf, skiing, sailing and hunting and fishing combined.
One reason that officials — particularly in struggling states — are showing a renewed interest in the arts is that they’re a relatively safe and affordable investment.
“It’s interesting that some of the states that were hardest hit by the recession are the ones doing the reinvestment,” said Jonathan Katz, director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. “It has to do with the arts being seen as an economic engine and one that’s reliable.”
Compare Rhode Island’s proposed $35 million arts referendum to the state’s failed $75 million investment in a video game company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. State officials hoped the investment would create a new economic cluster in the state, but 38 Studios went bankrupt, laid off its entire staff of 400 and left the state on the hook for $100 million — when interest is factored in.
By comparison, Rhode Island’s more than 1,000 arts organizations created more than 5,200 jobs in 2009 and contributed $324 million in economic activity.
The state estimates that every $1 spent by an arts organization in Rhode Island generates $2 for the economy thanks to spillovers to restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Rhode Island has prided itself on its artistic bent. The Rhode Island School of Design is considered one of the most prominent art and design schools in the world. Art galleries and studios can be found in tony Newport or in refurbished mills in working-class Pawtucket.
Morgan Calderini, a RISD graduate with a degree in printmaking, runs Ladyfingers Letterpress, a handcrafted stationary company she founded with her wife.
Calderini said her business turned a $750 state arts grant into lots of business — and tax revenue — when it allowed her to attend a trade show in New York.
She wants to see grants continue even as the state considers making a bigger investment in performing arts centers, museums and other larger organizations.
“It doesn’t have to be a lot of money,” she said. “There are lots of creative small business owners in this state. Sometimes they just need a little investment.”