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The Cultural Economy Gets A Boost

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Louisiana’s creative economy is a $12 billion industry

As lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu stressed the economic value of the arts. His support of our state’s “cultural economy” spurred the creation of the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps artists, from musicians to Mardi Gras Indians, survive and prosper. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the foundation initially worked to help cultural workers recover. Now LCEF focuses on making small grants, up to $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for organizations, for business projects that build on an artist’s skills and talents. Lisa Picone, the foundation’s grant program director, spoke to New Orleans Living about the impact of the cultural economy on the state of Louisiana.

What is the cultural economy?

Louisiana’s cultural economy is defined as “the people, enterprises and communities that transform cultural skills, knowledge and ideas into economically productive goods, services and places.” That’s our official, formal answer. But the cultural economy includes any person or business that contributes to the overall culture of Louisiana. It includes visual artists, arts and crafts, the performing arts, the culinary arts, designers, traditional culture bearers like the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, musicians, literary arts and the humanities, and historic preservation.

Is this a new way of looking at culture?

I think it’s a relatively new term. Around the nation it’s being referred to as the “creative economy.” Mitch Landrieu was a big proponent of the cultural economy as lieutenant governor. Under his tenure, a study was commissioned that measured the cultural economy of Louisiana. It determined that it accounts for about 150,000 jobs, more than 7.6 percent of our workforce, and it’s a $12 billion industry. Since the majority of the cultural workers are low-income wage earners, they are often overlooked as a relevant sector of the business community.

How did the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation come about?

Shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, we went on the fast track to getting our nonprofit status so that we could distribute relief grants to the many artists who lost everything. Initially it was about getting supplies to artists, helping them pay their rent, getting them back on their feet. We donated almost $1 million throughout the state.

When did LCEF move from emergency response to addressing the ongoing needs of artists?

In 2008 our two major programs were born: the Economic Opportunity Fund, our grant program, and our health-care initiative. The greatest needs of our cultural population were identified as access to capital and also to affordable health care. Artists and musicians are self-employed, so they don’t have access to health insurance plans.

What kind of ideas receive grants from LCEF?

The Economic Opportunity Fund program is actually an economic development program. In order to qualify you have to be a cultural worker with a unique idea to earn income that is outside your normal operation. For example, we funded an artist whose normal business is painting, but she had an idea to create a unique income stream based on putting her paintings onto fabric. The grant program is about taking what you already do and extending it into a new income stream.

How do you decide which artists merit funding?

We are not in the business of judging the artistic value of their work. We’re more concerned with the economic potential of their ideas. Our grant applications are like mini-business plans.

How effective have these small grants been?

In 2009, the average return on investment after a 12-month period was three to five times the initial grant.

Is Jay Dardenne, the current lieutenant governor, as concerned about the cultural economy?

The new lieutenant governor has reacted favorably to the cultural economy. I think it would be hard to find someone as enthusiastic as Mitch Landrieu. Thankfully, we had him in that position for some time.

Do people in Louisiana and New Orleans recognize the economic importance of the arts?

I think we still have a lot of work to do. But a lot more business people are starting to become familiar with the term.

What is the future of the cultural economy in Louisiana?

The mission of the grant program is to help cultural workers be self-sustaining. A lot of artists are really great at their art, but they’re bad at the business side. We have boosted people on that road to success, and I’d like to see that continue so that more artists are making a living doing their art.

For more information about the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation, visit www.culturaleconomy.org.