Expanding the creative economy

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The 2020 documentary “Clarissa Uprooted” featured youth with the organization Teen Empowerment. The film, named after the historic Corn Hill neighborhood, included interviews with area elders on living through racist policies such as redlining and urban removal during the 1940s to 1960s, and examined solutions to repair the harm.

The work begun by the film has persisted past its release, with Teen Empowerment hosting virtual conversations with elders during the pandemic, and a “Clarrisa Uprooted” exhibit at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s City Art Space set to open this summer.

It is also an example of the type of project the Rochester Area Community Foundation, which helped fund the documentary through a grant, hopes it can help support in the future.

“(The documentary) had an organization working in the arts, featuring intergenerational experiences which also provided education for youth and the community and focused on racial justice,” says Annette Jiménez Gleason, RACF’s program officer for vitality. “It was a partnership with the people, guided by what they needed.”

New state funds awarded to RACF could mean more opportunities for projects just like that. The New York State Council on the Arts recently gave $430,000 for local arts programs. Most of those dollars will go toward one-time grants for nonprofit and public organizations across Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne and Yates counties.

Jennifer Leonard

“We’re looking to reach underserved organizations in the arts,” says Jennifer Leonard, president and CEO of RACF, who hopes that those who have never applied for a Community Foundation or NYSCA grant will apply this time. “We want to expand the idea of the creative economy and who is included in it.”

Applications for the NYSCA grants will be accepted from March 14 to April 29 and open to arts and other community organizations in the eight counties served by the foundation. The process also includes an advisory committee of members from programs such as Blackfriars Theatre, the Finger Lakes Opera, Rochester Institute of Technology, Asian/Pacific Islander/American Association, and the Hochstein School. Recent NYSCA grant recipients, from 2018 or later, are not eligible.

RACF, which has been connecting philanthropists and community partners in the area since 1972, currently handles more than $577 million in assets with 1,420 charitable funds. 

Its arts funding includes $3 million, or 10 percent of total grant money. Over the last five years, RACF has granted an average of $250,000 annually to small community theater and literary groups and major performing and visual arts institutions through competitive application funds, which the NYSCA grants will fall into categorically.

“We are one of the largest arts funders in the area and we’re also community-based,” says Leonard, who expanded RACF’s scope and scale since taking her position in 1993. “It was one of the things which made us attractive to NYSCA.”

NYSCA Executive Director Mara Manus notes that re-grant partners help funds reach various communities statewide.

“Expanding eligibility and increasing access for the full and richly diverse ecosystem of artists and arts organizations of New York remain top priorities for NYSCA,” Manus says.

In addition to the grants, the partnership with NYSCA will also support funding for a comprehensive study of the creative economy outside New York City. This research will focus on Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse metros and other regions in order to understand trends and inform funding on a comparative basis.

“During the crisis of the pandemic, people supported human services and health. Things that are obviously needed at this time. But the arts are sometimes considered secondary in this, when they’re actually very necessary,” Leonard says, citing examples of artists reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. “We hope (the study) can be a galvanizing effort in the case of local governments supporting local arts.” 

According to a Brookings Institute analysis in 2020, Rochester saw an estimated cumulative loss of nearly 7,000 jobs in the creative industries, representing over $250 million in average monthly earnings. In terms of loss by percent change, Rochester ranked among higher population cities such as New York City.

The analysis also stated that the creative economy is one of the three key sectors (along with science and technology and business and management) which drive regional economies. It suggests that strategies for recovery must be “led by local public-private partnerships between municipal governments, arts and cultural organizations, economic development and community groups, philanthropy, and the private sector, with support from federal and state levels of government, national philanthropy, and large corporations.”

Similar in-depth research on the creative economy in Rochester was done in the 1990s and 2000s. The NYSCA-funded study will mark the first time in over a decade for such an analysis.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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