Creative powerhouse

Rutherford County is at the heart of a three-county area that has ranked fourth-highest in the nation for having a vibrant arts community that drives the economy, according to a new study.

Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) released its fourth annual Arts Vibrancy Index, according to a press release from the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.

“We were excited to be included,” said Shana Miller, communications and marketing director for the CVB.

Andrea Loughry, Murfreesboro arts advocate and vice chair of the Tennessee Arts Commission, said, “Rutherford County is emerging as an arts and cultural heritage community celebrating a broad spectrum of creative expressions.”

The index ranks more than 900 communities across the country, examining the level of supply, demand and government support for the arts in each city, according to the CVB. Aside from being a source of job creation, economic growth and tourism, the arts and culture industry contributes to social wellbeing and is essential to communities. The index focuses on communities with populations of more than 1 million. The No. 4 ranking encompasses Rutherford and Davidson counties and the City of Franklin in Williamson County.

“Between threats to eliminate federal arts funding and tax law changes that are expected to affect charitable giving, the current environmental turbulence and uncertainty make it more important than ever to acknowledge and celebrate the essential role that arts and culture play in making communities throughout the country more vibrant places to live and visit,” the study’s executive summary reads.

No. 1 on the index is San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, California. No. 2 is New York-Jersey City-White Plains. Third is Washington, D.C.-Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia-Maryland-West Virginia.

The arts-culture industry contributes to Rutherford County’s economy, generating $31.2 million every year, according to another report, the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 study conducted by Americans for the Arts.

The SMU study, meanwhile, notes that while this part of Middle Tennessee has long been known for music, it has an emerging “world-class” visual arts and fashion scene.

Just a few of the community’s noteworthy arts organizations and initiatives include Uncle Dave Macon Days, the Smyrna Arts & Cultural Council, Carpe Artista, Murfreesboro’s arts laureates and The Center for the Arts, Miller said. The Discover Center does a good job of incorporating art into its programs. Another example is the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts, an academy held every summer at Middle Tennessee State University to foster artistic creativity for rising high school juniors and seniors from across the state.

All these efforts, and many more, are building a vibrant art scene in Rutherford County, Miller said.

“We’re trying to focus on supporting arts in our community,” Miller said.

Toward that end, some in the arts industry are working to organize their efforts.

Loughry is involved with those organizers.

“The desire for a sustainable arts organization has been brewing for over a year in Rutherford County,” Loughry said. “It began with the appointment of the first cultural arts laureates in Murfreesboro. These three laureates in painting, poetry and photography spent about the first quarter of their term reviewing artists, arts organizations and our cultural assets as well as reading books about creative place-making in communities.”

Arts leaders realized the community had a wealth of assets, but they were not connected and often were duplicated, Loughry said.

Ginny Togrye, the painting laureate, told Loughry part of the laureates’ mission was to connect the “cultural community.”

The photography laureate, Jessica Nelson, organized her community through Facebook and community events, Loughry said.

“The poetry laureate, Kory Wells, energized her area of the arts and held many outreach programs,” Loughry said. “Ginny worked with the Rutherford Chamber of Commerce’s Conventions and Visitors Bureau on their site asking artists to join a directory and collecting all of these assets on a mailing list.”

Deciding a “connecting organization” was necessary, Loughry said she and artists began working with community leaders from government, funding organizations, MTSU and existing arts organizations. Their most recent meeting had 30 in attendance and was led by Tara MacDougal, CEO of Discovery Center, to identify strategies and a focus.

“We will examine the results of this community-driven exploration of ideas and purpose to start defining how our organization will look, as well as make sure it has a diverse representation from the broadest definition of artisan and arts organizations,” Loughry said.

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