In the 19th century no one knew much about New Hampshire. But then a few brave artists made their way to the White Mountains in the 1850s — and painted what they saw. These paintings made their way around the globe, and soon folks from everywhere were heading to the peace and solace of New Hampshire. The state’s tourism industry was born. And in fact, this came with the backdrop of Civil War, industrialization, growing pollution, and colonialism. Then in the 1930s change came again. As the world economy crumbled, Governor Winant and the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen launched their Craftsmen Fair, redefining the state in the midst of an economic upheaval.
Today, things are tough. Our economic future is far from clear — and the arts are faced with huge challenges. And, so is tourism. The pandemic and the accompanying crisis has dented the state’s tourism industry as well. But, New Hampshire’s economic recovery, and its ability to attract new residents in the midst of an exodus from big cities, is tied to its creative economy — and here is how.
Google “relocation” and find dozens of articles about how the Coronavirus has triggered the biggest exodus from cities since the 1950s. From shutdowns, to growing unrest, to high taxes-Americans are questioning the quality of life in big cities. And, as people look around, New Hampshire has to look pretty good. Low taxes, affordable home prices, and lots of education options. Not since the 1980s has NH looked so good, and this comes just in time. New Hampshire has become one of the fastest aging state’s in America. And, the percentage of NH youth who go off to college, never to return, is alarming. This is not the first time the state has faced the issue, it led to Frank Rollins starting Old Home Days to try to persuade young people not to leave the Granite State and move west.
But, the tax advantages and the, so-far, low COVID-19 infection rates certainly make NH attractive. Well, outside of Manchester, most NH cites are small, manageable, and with low crime rates. But NH has a bad rap for being not diverse, or welcoming, or welcoming of LGBTQ visitors. Do a search for LGBTQ on Visit NH and find no results? Search for diversity, and read a lot about wildlife habitats.
So, back to that arts — they have been, and can be, the engine that drives NH’s image beyond stodgy and unwelcoming. Performing arts, music, culture, art, and dance along with theater and craft fairs are off the charts here for a state this size. Everyone points to Burlington, Vermont as a cool city with its performing arts center, and yet smaller Concord has three and soon to be four performing arts centers, plus a theater in the square, and an indy movie house. And yes, COVID-19 can dent these offerings, but they speak to the cultural vibrance of the Capital City.
So, in a thought; this is not the time to cut the funds to support and expand the arts. This is the time to invest and cultivate them. The creative economy can draw millennials and others to the Granite State. Yes, they want the outdoors, schools and smaller but urban places - but they don’t want boring, white bread and bland. That is where NH is heading, and investing in the arts helps overcome out of date impressions of NH, and would help draw new investments and business.
So, no, we are not the tech capital of New England, or have colleges by the dozen: but our cool factor is deeper than low taxes, it is our creative economy, long neglected by the powers that be, that will open the conversation and close the deal. Now is time to step up, and embrace who we are and who we can be. It would not be the first time the arts have bailed the state out, but let’s hope it is the last.