The good news: Portsmouth has a vibrant arts and cultural community that generates tens of millions of dollars in economic activity each year. The bad news: That money does not necessarily make it back to the local arts organizations or artists, who are finding it increasingly difficult to live and work in the Port City.
That was the gist of Mike Teixeira’s State of the Arts presentation. Teixeira is the board president of Art-Speak, the city’s cultural commission, and his annual presentation was made to the Portsmouth City Council during its June 6 meeting at City Hall.
“I wish I could sit here and tell you it’s all awesome, but this year we really felt you had to know some things,” Teixeira told the council.
Art-Speak is conducting its next Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Economic Impact Survey this year. The survey, conducted every five years, measures the economic activity generated by arts and culture in the greater Portsmouth area. The last survey, which focused on fiscal year 2010, found that arts and culture generated about $41 million of economic activity in Portsmouth.
“When you have outsized profitability like that, there are strains, and we as an organization wanted to understand where those strains are existing.” — Mike Teixeira
But, Teixeira said, that number can be somewhat deceptive, as it does not measure how much money the artists and arts organizations get back for their efforts.
“This money is not the money that arts and culture organizations are making,” he said. “This is the money that is going back into the larger economy as the result of arts and culture in the community.”
Teixeira offered a breakdown of how that $41 million was spent. He presented a pie chart showing that 50 percent of the money went to restaurants, 17 percent went to lodging businesses, and 12 percent was spent on snacks. Another 9 percent went to retailers, 7 percent was spent on transportation (mainly parking), 2 percent was spent on childcare, and 3 percent was spent on miscellaneous items.
“You’ll notice that nowhere in this pie chart is money going back to the arts and cultural community,” Teixeira said.
He also noted that the arts generated $2 million in taxes for the city, and another $2 million in parking fees. “So we’ve got a $4 million benefit that’s going right back to the city,” he said.
According to Teixeira, in an average city that is about the same size as Portsmouth, arts and culture generates just $9 million in economic activity. That means the amount of money generated by the arts in Portsmouth is more than four and a half times the national average for cities of roughly the same size.
“But when you have outsized profitability like that, there are strains, and we as an organization wanted to understand where those strains are existing,” Teixeira said.
Art-Speak surveyed a number of arts and cultural organizations in Portsmouth to inquire about recent successes they’ve experienced and challenges they’re facing.
Several organizations reported large audiences and high demand. Discover Portsmouth reported that it received 30,000 visitors in 2015, and has had 12,000 visitors in the first 12 weeks of 2016, putting it on pace for 52,000 visitors over the course of the year.
The Music Hall reported that it has attracted some of its biggest-ever audiences this year in both its main theater and The Loft.
The Portsmouth Music and Arts Center reported an all-time high enrollment of 600 students participating in weekly programs.
And the Seacoast Repertory Theatre reported that it has paid off nearly $130,000 in debt while expanding its audience sizes.
“Cultural tourists spend 118 percent more than your local participant in an arts and culture event. So these are good people to come participate in our city.” — Mike Teixeira
As for Art-Speak, Teixeira cited the success of “A Tiny Bit Huge,” a slogan campaign that raised over $8,000 through crowdfunding earlier this year. The campaign now has a website that includes artist profile pages, an online store, and an events page. It has also launched a series of music compilations featuring Seacoast acts.
Teixeira also noted that Portsmouth has received national publicity with numerous magazine articles and blog posts praising the city as a desirable place to live or visit.
“This is important because we can leverage this outside perception of being this hotbed of arts and culture, (and) this can bring more arts and culture fans to the city,” he said.
According to AFTA, Teixeira said, “cultural tourists spend 118 percent more than your local participant in an arts and culture event. So these are good people to come participate in our city.”
But that spending does not always translate to financial success for artists and arts organizations.
Fear and frustration
According to Teixeira, there are 53 active arts and cultural organizations in Portsmouth.
“In addition to the organizations, we think there’s way over 500 actual working artists in the city,” he said.
The figure came from a report from the N.H. Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau, which does not count all musicians and performers, Teixeira noted.
But while the arts community continues to grow, the availability of funding for the arts is a persistent problem, and audiences are not growing rapidly enough to support so many organizations.
“The reality is that most of the organizations in the city are either just breaking even or they’re heavily supplementing their income with sponsorships, or they’re slipping into debt.” — Mike Teixeira
Teixeira cited 3S Artspace as an organization that has struggled since opening a little over a year ago. He also noted that there has been considerable debate around The Music Hall’s proposed archway at the intersection of Chestnut and Congress streets.
“A lot of these conversations have brought a lot of disturbing trends to light, and we want to talk a little bit about that,” he said.
Teixeira said the local arts community has pointed to several areas of concern, including a lack of funding, lack of affordable creative workspace, and the rising cost of housing.
“A lot of our arts and cultural community members are moving,” he said. “They’re supporting our city by working here, but they’re living in Dover, Rye, Kittery, and they’re starting to ask themselves a question I would ask myself: ‘Am I really a Portsmouth cultural member if I’m commuting in? I’m working hard to find a workspace and I can’t find a workspace here, and I couldn’t even find parking.’ So, this has led to some fear and frustration.”
Many arts organizations are struggling to establish steady sources of income, maintain adequate staffing levels, secure grants and corporate sponsorships, or get lines of credit.
“The reality is that most of the organizations in the city are either just breaking even or they’re heavily supplementing their income with sponsorships, or they’re slipping into debt,” Teixeira said.
Following Teixeira’s presentation, the city council unanimously voted to renew its annual agreement with Art-Speak (councilor Nancy Pearson, the director of Art-Speak, recused herself from the vote). The agreement includes $15,000 of city funds for the commission.
Teixeira advised the council to invest more aggressively in the arts and culture sector.
“We have to work together to come up with creative ways to channel some of that $41 million back into arts and culture, because it’s our engine of progress,” he said.
He also urged the council to invest in affordable cultural workspaces and affordable