Local governments across the country are struggling to cut costs and maintain government programs while finding the resources to support artistic and cultural development. Although national studies show that investment in the arts is nearly always profitable to the community at large, constituents are often reluctant to sacrifice what they see as daily necessities for artistic trivialities. In Arlington, Virginia, local officials rejected traditional notions of arts funding, turning instead to a entrepreneurial and competitive model. By using non-cash resources to entice nearby arts organizations to set up shop, Arlington has found a way to reinvigorate its arts scene without emptying its coffers.
In 1986 the Arlington County Board made a critical arts-related policy decision: from that point on county support would no longer be limited to a small, fixed number of favored institutions; rather, county support would be made subject to a competitive process both for these organizations as well as for others that might present themselves. Parks Department staff, working with various citizen advisory committees, developed new programs to encourage the growth of local artists and new arts organizations. And in 1991, administrators introduced the Arts Incubator, a program modeled on an economic-development framework that would increase arts resources without requiring additional fiscal resources.
Through the Arts Incubator program, the county provides free or low-cost facilities including theaters, galleries, and studios along with technical and administrative assistance in areas such as lighting design, costume design, and marketing. Although the Incubator program also provides financial assistance, most arts organizations and artists operate under their own budgets, and these non-cash Incubator resources entice artists and arts groups to relocate to Arlington. Officials estimate that if the arts groups were to lease comparable space at market rates, they would require an additional $400,000 per year to cover expenses.
The training and resources provided by the Arts Incubator program also help the arts organizations themselves improve management capabilities and expand their production frontiers. Whereas Arlington theatre groups had rarely attracted notice within the Washington D.C. metro-area, after the introduction of the Incubator program, Arlington attracted and developed award-winning theatre groups. Between 1991 and 1996, Arts Incubator theatres received 51 Helen Hayes Award nominations and won 16. Not only has Arlington been able to increase the quantity of local arts groups, it has been able to improve the quality of them. Furthermore, the Arts Incubator, through its recruitment system, was able to encourage arts groups to be more responsive to the community, not simply to an entrenched board of old-money directors.
Since 1991, the arts community in Arlington County has flourished. In 1990, Arlington was host to 198 arts events planned by 11 arts organizations; the total audience for these events was 98,000. By 1995, however, Arlington was hosting 1,317 arts events by 25 arts organizations, with a total audience of 300,000, nearly twice the county's population. The program has also allowed the city to grow economically based on its arts-related reputation: from 1990 to 1996, the County's arts industry grew from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. Furthermore, as a result of this increased activity and visibility, the Cultural Affairs, Economic Development, and Planning Divisions have developed strong partnerships with the private sector. Arlington Country has succeeded in developing an effective, low-cost strategy that is transferable to any community interested in expanding the arts and ensuring a vital arts presence where resources are limited.