Arts Mean Business for Nebraska

Music enthusiasts enjoys a free outdoor concert by the Lincoln Municipal Band at Antelope Park. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Arts Council)
Auburn's Central Office exterior. (Photo courtesy Auburn Public Schools)
Nebraskans for the Arts executive director Doug Zbylut (right), with Suzanne Wise of Nebraska Arts Council and State Sen. John Stinner of Gering (center). (Photo courtesy Nebraskans for the Arts)
Randy Cohen presents Arts & Economic Prosperity report in Lincoln. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Arts Council)
Randy Cohen, VP of Americans for the Arts, (left) and Lincoln arts supporter Wayne Boles, pose for a photo in Lincoln's Convention and Visitor's Haymarket office. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Arts Council)
A rendering of the proposed performing arts center for Auburn. (Photo courtesy Auburn Public Schools)
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March 6, 2018 - 6:45am

A new survey shows the arts in Lincoln are not just a community amenity, but also big business. But how is that prosperity translating to Nebraska’s smaller communities? 


On any given day, in any given town, inside any given venue audiences and performers across Nebraska are sharing the experience of a live arts performance.

Auburn School Superintendent Kevin Reiman works at his desk. (Photo courtesy of Auburn Public Schools)

Singers and instrumentalists from Norris High School and Lincoln East High School recently performed at Lincoln’s acoustically-perfect First-Plymouth Church. But imagine the sound of echoes mixed with the smell of sweat, if the concert had been performed in Auburn’s “gymnatorium.” Built in 1938, the practice space is shared by both the eighth grade basketball team and the high school competitive theatre group.

Kevin Reiman, Auburn School Superintendent, says he’s lost a lot of sleep thinking about how close his community came to green-lighting the $6.5 million project.

"There's a lot of gut-wrenching when you see your kids are doing some great things in our little auditorium here that doesn't have heat, doesn't have an adequate sound system, and has seats that were made for people in the 1930s that you’re squeezing into," Reiman said.

Over the last decade, Auburn residents have twice voted down funding of a performing arts center. The first ballot decision in 2008, lost by eight votes. The second, in May 2017, failed nearly two to one.

Reiman says both sides feel defeated. Not only the enthusiasts – who had visions of a new facility that resembled the Tassel in Holdrege – but also those fiscally-minded detractors, who just couldn’t ask their neighbors to pay more taxes for such a big ticket item.

Doug Zbylut, executive director for Nebraskans for the Arts, addresses arts supporters at Say Yes for the Arts Day. (Photo courtesy Nebraskans for the Arts)

"Well, you look at that price tag and it's a big pill to swallow. Different fundraising has brought in money. I think they brought in $100,000; people donating you know a thousand dollars here and there, and trying to dig deep," Reiman said.

Despite the woefully inferior practice space, the music and theater students continue to win district awards.

"I feel for the kids because we have some really nice athletic facilities, we have nice computers and classrooms, but yet we ask our kids to perform in a venue that's really substandard," Reiman said.

Sandwiched between Peru and Brownville in southeastern Nebraska, Auburn’s neighbors have offered to share their performance facilities. But the community rejected the idea, mainly because of transportation concerns.

"We tell our patrons it's never gone. It's always there; we have not forgotten about it," Reiman said. "If the financial items turn around and profit in the property tax somehow changes and then we get into an environment where we thought we could pass a bond, I think they would consider that, but it's just not in the cards right now."

And, Auburn isn’t alone in its struggle for arts funding.

Doug Zbylut, the executive director of Nebraskans for the Arts, says recent studies measuring the arts impact statewide show Nebraska holds steady – near the bottom -- of national averages for arts revenue.

"That shows that Nebraska is, as a state, we typically rank somewhere in the mid-thirties in terms of percent of employment of the arts compared to other states; the amount of compensation that people make that are in the arts. So we're on the bottom half but we're kind of steady in there," Zbylut said.

Zbylut says a creative and energetic grassroots effort can enliven the arts in smaller communities.

Americans for the Arts vice president Randy Cohen (left) with Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Arts Council)

"They say Nebraska, one of the things we have is we're very special events driven and I think communities are starting to learn that and they're having different events in their communities that help draw people there and for something to do," Zbylut explained.

Drawing audiences to different kinds of art events is a strategy Lincoln’s been using, too. A recent report shows $99 million was spent by arts organizations and audiences in the Capital City.

"Arts are a big business right here," said Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy for Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Cohen presented the 2015 survey results to the City-County Common, a joint quarterly meeting of the Lincoln City Council and mayor, and the Lancaster County Commissioners.

"Arts are good for the economy; they're supporting jobs. When you invest in the arts, you are not investing in a frill. You're investing in an industry that provides quality of life, cultural benefits and is a boon for the economy," Cohen said.

So, whether you’re attending a play in that gymnatorium in Auburn, or a musical performance in Lincoln, it all contributes to Nebraska’s arts economic portfolio.

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