by Julia East

I spent the majority of my life in rural America, where it was at least a two-hour drive to visit an artistic or cultural venue. Until moving to Southwest Florida, I had never lived in a place where I could, within minutes from my home, attend several theaters, hear any type of live music, see a fabulous art show, visit a museum, go the ballet and symphony, or have conversations with authors. You can understand why this access alone makes Southwest Florida paradise to me.

A community foundation focuses on helping to create and sustain a healthy community and thus is concerned about all aspects of a community, from human and social services to animal welfare to arts and culture. The health and stability of any community has its roots in all of these areas. Just like the human body, where a disease or deficiency in one part of the body will impact the rest of it, so it is true for a community.

This is especially relevant for an area such as Southwest Florida, where a major part of our economic engine is tourism. Tourists come to experience a pristine environment and enjoy our cultural venues. However, if the environment becomes compromised or there are no arts facilities, visitors, and the dollars they spend, will go to other places that have these amenities.

We all know that the United States is going through a rough patch, and no place has been harder hit than Southwest Florida. We were feeling the effects of the economic downturn long before most of the nation, and we have some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country.

During such times, it is a natural tendency for people to focus solely on the social and human service needs. These needs are great, and we should do as much as we can to alleviate human suffering, but we must also make sure that we do not abandon the arts. They are an integral part of our community and have a role in our economic condition, perhaps more than you realize.

A national study recently published by The Philanthropic Collaborative stated that for every $1 a foundation grants to charity, there is $8.58 of direct economic and social benefit. When you look at this data by sector, a gift of $1 to the area of arts and culture has a $9.77 return on investment.

Here at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, only a small number of the endowed funds we manage are dedicated to arts and culture. We’d certainly like to see this number grow, and we plan to increase our efforts to communicate this need and promote collaboration among the local arts groups that we support.

This issue of Times of the Islands, RSW Living, and Bonita Living shines a spotlight on some of the artists and organizations that add to our quality of life in Southwest Florida. Robert Cacioppo, producing artistic director of the Florida Repertory Theatre, shares the strategies that go into selecting a season. Artist Beth Schroeder reveals her sources of inspiration, while singer/songwriter Chip Withrow explains the joys of performing for kids. And we get a preview of the new Art of the Olympians museum planned for downtown Fort Myers.

Times are tough, but together we will persevere. Let us commit to supporting all sectors of our community to the best of our abilities. In that way, our community will emerge whole rather than with holes.