The Dayton Business Journal recently held a conversation focused on the State of Arts & Culture in the Dayton region. Panelists included Ty Sutton, President & CEO at Dayton Live; Patrick Nugent, President & CEO at Dayton Performing Arts Alliance; Tracey Tomme, President & CEO at Dayton Society of Natural History; Michael Roediger, Director & CEO at Dayton Art Institute; and Cory Earl, Market President & Publisher of the Dayton Business Journal, moderated the discussion.
Cory Earl: Thank you all for joining us today. Let’s start out with your thoughts on the current state of arts and culture in the Dayton region. Ty, let’s start with you.
Ty Sutton: Thanks Cory, we appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this discussion today. Dayton has a vibrant Arts and Culture industry that is in recovery after being more affected from the pandemic than any other industry. I use the word industry on purpose because many people think of arts and culture as a nice thing to have or a great quality of life measure, but we also are an industry bigger than many others in the state. In the Dayton region, we employ thousands of people in the Creative Sector. Dayton Live itself owns and operates the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, Victoria Theatre, Metropolitan Arts Center, PNC Arts Annex and the first four floors of the Performance Place tower, about 700,000 square feet of venues. We also promote hundreds of performances a year and are growing as a presenter. Financially, the pandemic required us to downsize our staff by over 90% and work to be ready to reopen when the timing was right. I’m glad to say that today we are fully staffed and seeing tremendous audiences, but it will take time for us to recover from deferred maintenance and all the outcomes being shut down for 18 months created.
Tracey Tomme: Culture is exactly why we moved to Dayton. Yes, we moved in part for my job at the Dayton Society of Natural History, but we wouldn’t have moved for just the job alone. It is because of the variety of other museums, the performing arts, and Metroparks that really sealed the deal. We have many cultural activities here, more than I would expect for our size of community. I would say the “state” of these organizations is very affordable and accessible for our community. They are robust with truly something for everyone. They are also constantly battling aging infrastructure and very tight budgets.
Michael Roediger: I am encouraged by the return of people supporting arts and culture in the Dayton community. We are seeing more people return to the museum post-pandemic. We are now at 83% of what we were before. That said, I am not sure the community at large understands that we are struggling to ensure we can retain our talented employees and care for our facilities to make sure this resource is available to them. People got in the habit of being at home and viewing art on TV or online, we need those folks to come back – nothing beats seeing a work of art or viewing a live performance in person. There is a unique energy you feel when you are in a gallery or seeing a performance that cannot be replicated.
Patrick Nugent: Dayton is fortunate to have such rich arts and culture for a city its size, and equally fortunate that its cultural leaders collaborate well. Younger professionals and retirees who move here are thrilled to have so many offerings. In the performing arts, we couldn’t ask for better performance spaces than the state-of-the-art Benjamin and Miriam Schuster Center, and the intimate, classic Victoria Theatre. The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance — encompassing orchestra, ballet, and opera — is the only organization in the U.S. to combine these three art forms into a single organization. Audiences are returning after COVID, though not as quickly as we’d like. Last season DPAA’s audiences were at 52% of pre-COVID levels, and this season we’re at 70%. We’d like to return to 100%. As is true nationally, philanthropy is playing an increasing role in making the arts available and accessible. The days of enormous, easy support from giant corporations are long gone, but our individual and foundation donors are generous. The business community is very prosperous in the region and all the arts and culture organizations need to involve business much more. All of us are working hard to make arts and culture experiences available and affordable to everyone, and we need businesses to help.
Earl: It’s good to see that we are making consistent progress to return to pre-pandemic numbers in our arts & culture community but understand there is much more work to be done. As we dig in, what key challenges and opportunities exist in this sector locally and how does that compare to the regional and national landscape?
Tracey Tomme: I’ll start with opportunities. Dayton has set an example of how a mid-sized community can provide big-city quality of life including performing arts, beautiful venues, and family-friendly museums. To have our ballet, opera, and symphony all under one umbrella and working together is a truly unique model. As is having an accredited zoo, children’s museum, planetarium, natural history museum, and national historic landmark all under one organization. By combining organizations, we save precious funding resources with reduced administration costs. However, we do have some very real challenges. Our organizations desire and are expected to be very affordable for everyone. We all offer reduced or free tickets, educational programming, and participate in community events at our own expense. Payroll and utilities costs continue to rise, and our buildings are aging. We do not have significant local government funding, nor do we have large companies here to invest, like we have had in the past. We cannot charge our guests what it costs us to operate. If we did, few could afford to visit us. Donors don’t typically care to fund operating or maintenance costs. All of this makes it interesting to balance our budgets. Should our infrastructure fail, so will our organizations.
Patrick Nugent: The arts and culture sector must demonstrate its value to the business community. The arts are one of the top three drivers of quality of life that attract and retain new employees, especially in tech, defense, health care, and manufacturing. The arts make Dayton a splendid place to raise a family, start a career, and retire happily. Businesses derive enormous benefit from the arts. We need to demonstrate that value to attract more significant investment from the business community. The performing arts and the fine arts have inherited a perception that we only benefit a small slice of the population. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dayton’s arts and culture organizations have made our offerings widely accessible. DPAA’s fundamental conviction is that the arts are for everyone, so we sell $5 tickets to almost everything we do. And a partnership with Dayton Metro Libraries makes free tickets available to library card holders. Nationally, arts organizations face these same challenges. Dayton is an anomaly in the low level of corporate and public support in a thriving business environment. The Dayton region needs to invest in the arts at a level befitting our contribution to quality of life and workforce development.
Michael Roediger: Funding remains a challenge and a priority. Our costs have gone up like everything else. Often, I think guests visit the DAI and see the beautiful art and facility but don’t realize how expensive it is to own and operate such an organization. Every day we are open, it costs us nearly $17,000 to operate. Fifty percent of our budget comes from contributed income. That is why every membership and annual fund gift is important. Every grant matters, every sponsorship is vital, and all our signature events – Art Ball, Bourbon & Bubbles, and Oktoberfest add to the bottom line. Countless education programs, the Museum Store and Events Rentals for more than 50 corporate, nonprofit, and wedding events annually are additional revenue. Running an arts organization is an expensive proposition. As an art museum, we are trending similarly to other museums around the country. At the DAI, we are seeking meaningful opportunities for community engagement and partnerships. We know that in this post-pandemic world that meeting people where they are is more important than ever. We are being intentional about opportunities that create access for under-represented communities and inspire new and younger audiences to fall in love with visual art and what the DAI offers. There is great opportunity by being even more welcoming and creating a sense of belonging.
Ty Sutton: The arts and cultural offerings in the Dayton region are known throughout Ohio and the Midwest for excellence and that creates opportunities for work that impacts the entire community. We have venues that are the envy of much larger communities and producing organizations creating and curating fantastic work. Our challenge is that we are in an economic structure that isn’t easily sustainable. Many of the traditional funding sources for our sector aren’t here anymore. Large corporate funders that once were headquartered in Dayton and championed our companies are gone. We need to find a new economic model that benefits all the arts and culture sector and one that recognizes how much we contribute to the region. I do worry that we are on a path where the community will have to decide if arts and culture warrants their financial support. Our long-term financial outlook is going to have to be a community conversation. Do we deserve to find a financial path forward that is sustainable in view of the changes on our corporate landscape?
Earl: Funding seems to be a consistent trend that must be addressed as well as a renewed emphasis and awareness of the role that arts and culture play in Dayton’s value proposition. What models or examples already exist as potential solutions that we could learn from or build upon?
Patrick Nugent: Dayton is a leader in producing models for other communities to emulate. The Dayton Performing Art Alliance is the only organization in the country that combines ballet, opera, and orchestra into one single, integrated organization whose driving purpose is to inspire people of every age and background to fall in love with the arts. I’m unaware of any other community that offers $5 tickets to major professional opera, orchestra, or ballet on a large scale, without requiring proof of public assistance or a student ID. Want to try out the arts … take the risk out of it with a $5 ticket. Arts not in your budget? Now they are. Can’t afford to take your children or grandchildren to the ballet or philharmonic? Now you can. No other city does this. We ARE the model. Nevertheless, we are far behind other communities in public support for the arts. Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati devote significant public resources to the arts and help maintain their great cultural facilities. The Dayton region needs to consider an arts and culture levy, an accommodation tax, and similar opportunities that match public investment to the value we provide to business, quality of life, and workforce development.
Michael Roediger: This is a tough question. All the fine arts are reimagining themselves. New audiences expect the arts to evolve using technology. I think we are all finding our way together. Again, we want people to experience live art and culture, but what if that is not what they want? We are introducing new technology through videos about art both for adults and children. We are launching a new DAI app this year through Bloomberg Connects that will create more accessibility to the collection. All the labels can be magnified on one’s phone or loaned iPad and can be translated into 30 languages. Over time, guests may also be able to hear an artist speak about their work or see an artist video. The possibilities are endless, and people will be able to use the app while visiting or remotely making the DAI virtually accessible anywhere in the world.
Earl: What role do you believe our arts and culture community plays in our regional workforce strategy now and how should it be viewed going forward?
Ty Sutton: I moved to Dayton almost 5 years ago but had never lived in Ohio prior to that time. The things that convinced me to make Dayton my family’s home are all connected to quality of life. I see parks, trails, waterways, libraries and arts and culture all working together to attract and keep our workforce in the region. A study from Americans for the Arts asked the public if it was important for businesses and economy in their community to have facilities such as museums, theatres, and concert halls available. 82% of respondents said it was important for the community they live in to have these facilities available. In the same survey, many respondents indicated when thinking about a new job or place to live, Americans consider the quality of arts and culture offerings as a key factor. Arts and culture make a difference to economic success. Our workforce has more options than ever before when it comes to where they live, and that’s not always tied to a physical workspace. I think what makes this region great includes stellar arts and culture facilities for a city our size. Many larger cities throughout the country are envious of the total package we have in Dayton and that needs to be used strategically to tell the story of this community.
Patrick Nugent: After housing and schools, a rich and vibrant arts community is the third most important driver for quality of life. For attracting workers to Dayton and keeping them here, the arts and culture are critical. Businesses need to promote the arts front-and-center in their recruitment and retention. If business and government want to attract new residents, keep current ones, and make Dayton an even better place to live and conduct business, they should be highlighting culture as a deep and powerful strength. And they should invest accordingly. The cultural sector needs to speak with one voice, demonstrate our value to business and government, and provide concrete resources that will help employers persuade great employees to settle, stay, and retire in Dayton. The arts have an enormous economic impact on the region and are a significant employer, yet we have no reliable economic impact figures for Dayton, Montgomery County, or the greater region. We need this data to equip business and government to recognize, promote, and invest in the value of the arts and culture.
Tracey Tomme: It’s not just the job that brings or keeps someone in Dayton – it’s the whole package of living in a vibrant community. People want to live where it is affordable, safe, friendly, and you have activities to do as children, adults, and families. Dayton has all of this and in large part due to our arts and cultural institutions. To recruit and keep high-tech and innovative employees we must have arts and cultural opportunities. With Intel and others building large facilities with large staffing needs, we may see local professionals moving out of Dayton. The “brain drain” fear is real. How to keep your employees? Make this the best place for them to work and live. You work on the culture of your organization because as we all know, you can have the best vision and goals but without a strong culture, you are not going to achieve them in your business. Let’s apply that to our community. When your employees are not at work, they also need to have a great culture which includes cultural opportunities, quality education, safe neighborhoods, and beautiful nature trails and rivers. We already have all of this here; we just need to take care of it all to keep it.
Michael Roediger: The arts are critical to the renaissance we are seeing in our downtown core and to attracting companies and professional talent to the Miami Valley. We are a resource for recruiting executives to show them our quality of life. All of us have given tours to candidates for leadership positions for our local hospitals, universities, and others. A rich arts community signifies a healthy business community. I often say, “no margin, no mission.” The arts are an economic driver in Dayton and in the state of Ohio the arts are the third largest employer behind agriculture and manufacturing.
Earl: Looking ahead, how do you think the industry will continue to evolve over the next decade, and what are you doing now to position for the future?
Tracey Tomme: In my opinion, the Dayton Society of Natural History is in the business of education. Providing education for all ages and acquiring and preserving collections that will continue to educate for many more generations to come. We have placed more emphasis on educational programing including aligning all our programs to state education standards and meeting the needs of school and educators. We have seen an increase in the number of k-12 students we serve. Just three years ago (pre-COVID), we were seeing on average around 15,000 students a year. In 2022, that number grew to over 47,000 unique individuals. We have adapted our programs to serve students at our facilities, at their schools, and virtually. Schools have reported increases in science scores attributed directly to our programs. This is a big deal! Our programs are helping to increase student knowledge, interest in learning, and are even important components to improve student mental health. Our organizations collectively improve mental health for all ages. Attending a live production, a museum, or even taking a walk through a park, can be a great way to meet other people, relax, laugh, and appreciate life.
Ty Sutton: The experience of traditional art forms will still be in demand but what people think of as an arts and culture experience is evolving. A firm called LaPlaca Cohen does a major survey every few years called Culture Track. One thing that’s become clear is that the definition of a cultural experience is changing. Years ago, I would see traditional arts experiences including symphony, ballet, and opera at the top of the list of what Americans identified as a cultural experience in the survey data. Today that same survey includes food trucks and street festivals as leading cultural experiences. I strongly believe in meeting people where they are, and we have adapted our programming according to the demands of our audience. That has led us to record-breaking ticket sales in the short run and a redefined view of relevance in the long run. Over the next decade we will see demand for interactive and immersive programming skyrocket. I also believe the role of arts and culture anchor institutions will be even more important as traditional social situations in the workplace will change due to remote work. The opportunity and mission to bring people together to experience something positive in life can’t be understated as many people’s day-to-day lives become more isolated because of technology.
Michael Roediger: We are going to evolve our funding and revenue streams and redevelop the way we have traditionally done things. Younger audiences don’t want direct mail, they want more options and to be part of causes and issues that are helping the world be healthier through social justice and the environment. They want there to be elements of technology with their consumption of art and with how they are communicated to and solicited. If we don’t value what they value, they will go somewhere else for art and entertainment. Everything is at their fingertips.
Patrick Nugent: We must prove our value to business and government effectively. We also need to show that the performing and visual arts aren’t relics of the past — they are living art forms that continue to speak to the world we live in. We in the arts also need to communicate our value differently to the consumer. People make purchases to make progress in their lives. Visiting an art museum, taking an afternoon to learn about science, enjoying a ballet, or hearing a live piano concerto offer you the chance to immerse yourself in experiences that soothe the soul, move the emotions, and animate the imagination. We offer sanctuary, escape, and adventure. Americans love to immerse themselves in great storytelling, including from other times and places. All the arts — whether it’s the opera, a science museum, an aviation heritage experience, a Broadway musical, or the Dayton Philharmonic — are about telling stories and immersing you in them. Throughout the country, the arts and culture need to promote those experiences. Our country is deeply concerned about mental health, stress, overwork, and disconnection from the community. The arts are fantastic antidotes. We help you improve your mental health and emotional strength. The industry needs to tell that story.
Earl: Who else deserves a shout-out for what they are doing in this space and why?
Patrick Nugent: Dayton has one of the most effective and strongest Chambers of Commerce in the nation, far outpacing our size. Dayton Development Coalition is an economic development powerhouse that brings enormous and consistent value to our community. Both organizations have welcomed and included arts and culture leaders and organizations with open arms and are extremely responsive to our needs and hopes as an important part of the economic and business landscape. The arts and culture leaders in Dayton are an extraordinary group of talented and dedicated people. I salute these colleagues for their collaborative approach, openness to innovation, and friendship. I want to single out Col. Christopher Meeker of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB for his determination to integrate the base and the community with one another much more deeply. Our board members, Amber Begley of DDC and Deborah Gross, formerly of Dayton Defense, have been my guides and counselors on working within the business community here in Dayton and have opened doors to crucial partners and allies. I appreciate that deeply.
Michael Roediger: I am so proud of my stellar colleagues. They are talented, nimble and dedicated to our mission of Through art, we create transformative and diverse experiences, strengthen community connections and inspire imagination. Three big shout outs: 1) I am so impressed with how resilient Dayton Contemporary Dayton Company has been during the last three years. We collaborated on one of the most meaningful partnerships of my career during the pandemic. They came to us requesting to film in the museum since all stages were closed. We enthusiastically said yes. The dance and the museum came to life and then we recreated video for a live intimate audience. 2) The African American Visual Artists Guild are talented artists working to advance inclusion and knowledge of Black art. We recently partnered with them on an exhibition which was a national call for Black contemporary art, the collaboration created many new opportunities and friendships for both of our organizations. 3) We are so blessed to have an art movie house in downtown Dayton. The Neon is part of our rich arts community. They are small but mighty and open 365 days a year. Make your first choice for movies the Neon.
Tracey Tomme: While Dayton History and the National Museum of the United States Air Force are not part of this interview, they are also large, quality, key components to the cultural offerings of Dayton. Dayton History includes Carillon Park and other locations scattered around the area. Brady Kress has done an amazing job of finding, conserving, and protecting many very important buildings and histories of Dayton citizens for future generations. The Air Force Museum brings in tourists from around the world while also serving as truly a world-class aviation museum that, in my opinion, is even better than those you would find in large metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C.
Earl: In closing, what do you hope our readers take away from this conversation?
Ty Sutton: First and foremost, that we’re an important part of the region’s economic health. Speaking to the business community, I’d like them to know that as a non-profit corporation we are great stewards of their support. Dayton Live has grown to an annual budget in the $20 million dollar range with 85% earned income and the company is 100% debt free for the first time since the Schuster Center was built. Through great board leadership and a dedicated staff, we have transformed our business model and are operating at a positive net income while still offering free and subsidized education programs. That being said, no one in the arts and culture sector can fulfill our mission without community support. We have huge long-term capital needs, and our buildings are aging in a time of greatly increased maintenance and renovation costs. We need help from individual, corporate, foundation, and government partners to keep the Dayton arts structure vibrant. Public support per capita in other parts of Ohio may be 10x or more than what is available in Dayton through taxes and other long-term funding. We need to work together to find solutions to ensure our future. The biggest takeaway is that I’m optimistic about our future, grateful for the ongoing support and excited to lead the area’s largest Arts organization into the future.
Tracey Tomme: Dayton has invested a lot in the arts and culture, much funded by people and companies that have left Dayton. We look around now and find that we have dedicated supporters but not at former levels. We need our businesses to realize that if the arts and museums of Dayton fail, so does Dayton. It’s important for companies to look at how they can help support and promote these organizations to also increase the value of their business and the quality of life of their employees.
Patrick Nugent: The arts and culture are a major driver of quality of life in the Dayton region, and a major attraction for new residents. Business and government are already benefiting from this and have for a long time. Let’s partner together to match the investment to the benefit. And the next time you’re looking for quality time with your spouse, children, grandkids, friends, colleagues, or team members — please visit a gallery, museum, performance, or concert!
Michael Roediger: That the arts are alive and vibrant in Dayton, but like any living being, they need nurturing. Be present, buy a ticket to a show, or even better a subscription, become a member of a museum, donate to the arts that feed your soul, ask your employer to become a sponsor, volunteer and bring a friend or introduce a child to a lifelong love of the arts. The arts are a business and an economic driver for the region. We make the quality of life better in Dayton.
Earl: I love a strong finish. It is abundantly clear that our unique arts & culture ecosystem is not only a rich community asset that should be supported and protected, but one that allows the Dayton region to be competitive and attractive on a national scale. This has certainly been a very insightful conversation and with that, we’ll conclude today’s discussion. Once again, I’d like to thank each of you for sharing your time and perspectives with our readers. We all have much to consider as we work together to shape the future of our community now and going forward.