The ripple effect of the arts

Popular among economists, sociologists and software engineers, the phrase "ripple effect" has also been adopted by arts and cultural thought leaders to describe the powerful impact of the creative sector on our shared communities. Here at Center Stage, the State Theater of Maryland, this apt metaphor helps to frame the scope of our own work, whether discussing quantifiable economic stimulus, ambitious artistic goals or meaningful civic engagement.

Strong annual support from the Maryland State Arts Council represents a budgetary anchor that directly sustains our world-class artistic and educational programming. The splash of this anchor funding expands rapidly in all directions throughout our local and regional economies. The immediate ripples are apparent; job creation, tax revenue and neighborhood vibrancy are all clear indicators of successful return on investment. We also leverage state funding to encourage the participation of many philanthropic and corporate partners, further increasing our capacity.

Yet the ripples continue to multiply and grow across the economy in less-obvious ways. The diverse list of economic beneficiaries is seemingly endless: restaurants and bars, hotels, financial and insurance services, maintenance and operations vendors, printers and IT firms, catering outfits, school bus rentals, etc. In fact, the latest data from Maryland's Department of Economic Development demonstrate that the nonprofit arts industry generates a $1 billion annual impact on the state's economy and supports more than 11,000 jobs. And that's just the nonprofit sector impact, not including our friends in the commercial arts and entertainment world. These are ripples on a tidal wave scale.

The ripple effect metaphor describes successful artistic impact as well. Center Stage's "My America" project — 50 commissioned monologues from leading and emerging playwrights, filmed for digital distribution — began with a sold-out live premiere screening here in Baltimore. The web-based content has since rippled widely, already attracting more than 60,000 page views, 70 percent of which have been from outside the Baltimore metropolitan area. Filmed by Possible Films, led by award-winning director Hal Hartley, these 50 monologues by writers including Neil LaBute, Christopher Durang, Lynn Nottage and Baltimore's own Anna Deavere Smith explore our particular American moment — the ideas and people that make the country what it is today. The responses, ranging from the political to the personal, form a tapestry of ideas. (You can visit to experience this unique online project and join the national conversation.) The project has been profiled in major media outlets including The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, BBC World Service, the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre magazine and Broadway World.

Similarly, we expect vital, viral civic conversations inspired by Center Stage's productions of "The Mountaintop" and "The Raisin Cycle" to ripple outward from the theater lobby to dining room tables, office water coolers, classrooms, the press, the Internet and beyond. Recent initiatives of the National Endowment for the Arts and others are proving the efficacy of what the NEA calls "creative placemaking" as a powerful strategy for fueling neighborhood renewal and reinvestment, by increasing quality-of-life indicators to attract and retain young professionals, empty-nesters and others as permanent, engaged residents. Along with our peers statewide, producing work that attracts widespread national attention and audiences further raises Maryland's profile as a center for creativity and innovation, spurring future economic development — yet another ripple.

As we celebrate Center Stage's 50th anniversary season, the leading role of public partnership throughout our remarkable five decades of growth stands out. During challenging economic times, the steadfast anchor of state funding prevents job losses and keeps the arts and cultural sector's ripple effect in motion for the many it supports. In a climate of fiscal recovery and health, a heavier anchor (and its bigger splash) catalyzes even broader impact. Thanks are due to the governor, other public officials and the citizens of Maryland for continuing the visionary investments and smart public policies that ensure the future success of our creative communities.

Kwame Kwei-Armah is the artistic director of Center Stage. His email is

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