Mais Oui

To Be or Not To Be?

by Cherry Fisher May

It’s Festival time, when it becomes abundantly clear how much we love the arts in Acadiana. Festival International hits it on all cylinders: music, food, visual and performing arts, arts education and cultural exchange. Locals flock to the streets of Downtown to join tourists who navigate their way to Lafayette from all corners of the globe. Hotel rooms are full. Sales tax collections spike. It’s a snapshot of what the arts do for local business. It educates our kids about their place in the world and bolsters community pride like nothing else we do around here.

But Festival is also a snapshot of where we fall short as a community when it comes to arts and culture. Like every other arts organization in town, Festival struggles financially to fulfill its mission, even beloved as it is, and sadly it’s in good company. From the Acadiana Center for the Arts to The Acadiana Symphony and beyond, we talk the talk but we sure don’t walk the walk. Check the rosters of contributors to these organizations and you see the same names over and over. It’s not sustainable.

Take the Acadiana Center for the Arts, for example. As perhaps the premier arts organization in our region, the AcA also struggles to offer the live music, arts education and visual arts programming it was created to provide. There are seven buckets of money that keep it afloat: consolidated government, state Division of the Arts grants, the Lafayette Parish public school system, non-profit grants, ticket sales, fundraising events, and donors/ memberships, etc. Sounds robust, right? Wrong. Public funding is being slashed at all levels. Grants are competitive and expire over time. Donors are aging and donor fatigue looms. The organization is in the midst of a zero-based budget process, reviewing all programming and staffing as if it were starting over. All organizations need that from time to time, but restructuring alone can’t close the gap. (This debate has also spawned a new general arts fund at the Community Foundation of Acadiana. More on that in next month’s column.)

Thankfully, LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux gets it. One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi gets it. Throughout his tenure, retiring City-Parish President Joey Durel has budgeted what he could get through the council, which was never enough and brings me to this fall’s elections. Those of us who understand the value of the arts need to show up at every town hall meeting, every civic club candidates’ forum, every neighborhood coffee shop during the upcoming election and ask this question: What will you do to support arts and culture for our children, our businesses and our community? And it’s not just a city issue. We need to make it a priority for candidates in the race for city-parish president and in all nine districts. It’s as important to kids and businesses in Carencro as it is for those in all corners of the parish, arguably more so in our fastest growing towns.

We know that a vibrant arts and cultural landscape ranks among the top five assets for a city to be competitive for the best jobs in the 21st century. In his seminal work The Rise of the Creative Class, Dr. Richard Florida proved that today’s young professionals choose where they want to live based on quality of life criteria. The good jobs follow the talent in this new paradigm of economic development. Our unique Cajun culture got us in the game. It’s going to take broader investment in arts and culture to keep us competitive.