Across South Carolina and the Upstate, the arts not only provide a cultural outlet; they are a key driver of economic development


Words by Jordana Megonigal

When we think of the industry clusters that make our state tick, there are a few that come to mind easily. Aerospace, automotive manufacturing, and life science industries all get plenty of notice for their influence in South Carolina.

But arts, as an industry, is not usually part of the economic discussion. Maybe it’s because the category — what is and is not included as “arts” — is hard to fully define. Maybe it’s because in our minds, we tend to compartmentalize the arts as something we do outside of economic development, instead of something that is actually moving the needle in South Carolina’s economy. 

In reality, the arts play a major part across the state — and in the Upstate as well — as economic drivers, career outlets, and city revenue boosters. In fact, according to the recently completed economic impact study commissioned by the S.C. Arts Commission, the arts in South Carolina — which, in this study, includes everything from nonprofit organizations, to museums and theaters, to “creative careers” like architecture and creative design — result in an annual economic impact of $9.7 billion, and about 115,000 jobs. That’s no small number; in comparison, the mid-2017 economic impact study commissioned by SC Bio and the SC Research Authority for South Carolina’s life sciences industry revealed an only slightly larger $11.4 billion impact across the state. 

For GP McLeer, executive director of the S.C. Arts Alliance (which just so happens to be physically located in the Upstate), the study simply confirms something they’ve known for a long time: The arts mean big business.


Growth engine

“I think it’s easy to tell that the arts have been an engine of growth for a long time,” McLeer says. “In larger cities like Greenville, Spartanburg, or Anderson, the arts have been an integrated part of their growth on purpose. Those cultural hubs have been key in creating a sense of identity and innovation and highlighting different needs and cultures within the area. In the smaller communities, they use arts as tools for economic development, too. The arts are a big part of the engine that communities are using to make themselves better.”

In the Upstate, there are a few city-specific indicators of what the arts mean to the economy. As one example, Artisphere, which has been a staple of the Upstate and most specifically, Greenville, for 13 years, results in huge numbers of visitors, a large quantity of artists, and an annually increasing amount of dollars.

In 2017, the weekend-long event brought together 135 artists of all types, attracted an attendance base of more than 99,000 people, and resulted in a direct economic impact of more than $6.6 million. And while that’s good news for the city, it’s even better news for the participating artists, who reported sales of $1.2 million. On a larger scale, the  Metropolitan Arts Council, a local arts education organization, puts the total annual economic impact of the arts at more than $205 million in Greenville County.

Up the interstate, Spartanburg houses institutions such as the Chapman Cultural Center and the West Main Artists Co-Op. Instead of bronze statues of famous locals, as can be found in Greenville, the streets downtown are sprinkled with stylized light bulbs and various other pieces. The city, in a 2016 Arts and Economic Prosperity study produced by Americans for the Arts, showed $32 million in economic activity in the county — $21.4 million of that by nonprofit organizations and other institutions, and the other $10.7 million in event-related spending.

But the larger Upstate cities aren’t the only ones seeing major turnarounds due to their focus on arts. Smaller cities like Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Greenwood all place a big focus on the arts in both tourism and economic development pitches and are becoming well known for being centers of influence for the arts themselves. In many cases, this focus grows out of a city-owned or operated Arts Center, in which the local government makes both physical and financial investment in the arts in the hopes that it will draw both visitors and new citizens.

The art economy

While much of the focus in the arts conversation remains on visitors and tourism, the reality is that business growth is a large part of the conversation, as well.

“When Esurance was here talking about their relocation, their interest was about the arts center and how their employees would have an outlet for creativity outside of the workplace,” McLeer says. “It’s a quality-of-life concern. That’s just one more example of why the arts need a seat at the economic development table.”

Fortunately, it seems to be catching on. In January, local economic development organization Ten at the Top unveiled their newest tool, an online map that shows the location of more than 1,300 arts and cultural events and organizations within the 10-county area, with more expected to be discovered, vetted, and added to the map in the near future.

There’s one more thing to consider, when looking at the true impact the arts have on the Upstate’s economy: federal and state funding to keep our cities thriving.

“The Upstate is one of the main hubs for state arts funding,” says McLeer. “The grants are there, and they are helping out a lot. Keep in mind that nonprofits make up a large chunk of our arts communities, and grants are needed to support that work. An art center having an art opening is not for their own benefit; it’s for the community to be exposed, to provide new perspectives on issues.”

After all, he adds, keeping the arts active in our communities benefits us all. “They are public bodies, and fortunately, they see the value in adding that to our lives.”

Art … as a Crime Fighter?

In late 2016 and early 2017, Spartanburg unveiled a new art installation across town called “Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light.” The installation, led by artist Erwin Redl, resulted from the selection of the City of Spartanburg as one of only four cities to receive up to $1 million as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge.

But what is unique about this installation isn’t the beauty or subjectivity of the art itself — it’s the meaning with which it functions. Redl, known for his work with LED light, collaborated with the city’s police department and select neighborhood to develop the light-based installations, resulting in safer, brighter, and more vibrant neighborhoods.



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