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Cities are banking on the arts

Once the first thing to be cut in a time of recession, the arts are proving their worth.

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Park City had a different problem. Packed with skiers in winter and movie-industry folk during January's Sundance Film Festival, how could it distinguish itself from other resorts? And how could it fill those condos and restaurants in the off-season?

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"Arts and culture is coming into its own as a major factor for tourism," says Kathy Hunter, executive director of Park City Summit County Arts Council. With nonstop cultural offerings from June to September, such as the Deer Valley Music Festival and the huge Kimball Arts Festival on Main Street, "an increase in summer tourism is what's sustaining everything right now and, in fact, growing it," Ms. Hunter says. In 2010, the town of 8,000 attracted more than 1 million arts-and-culture visitors who contributed $109 million in economic stimulus.

Denver has also changed its image from a destination for puffy-parka people to espresso-sipping sophisticates. Gov. John Hickenlooper (formerly Denver's mayor and now governor of Colorado) made promoting arts a major focus. Aided by a bond issue and a dedicated sales tax that residents overwhelmingly renewed until 2018, the city built the striking Daniel Libeskind-designed addition to the Denver Art Museum and spruced up a now-bustling downtown arts district, home to a new Clyfford Still Museum.

"Colorado has always been known for its outdoor sports like skiing, hiking, and biking," says Andrea Fulton, director of communications at the Denver Art Museum. "As the baby boomer generation starts to age, they can't do those things five days in a row. They're looking for other activities during their visit, like arts and culture."

"We're expanding the branding," Ms. Mar­i­ner says of Colorado's new focus. Besides sports, recreation, and natural beauty, she says, "what we have to emphasize is we're a magnet for creatives." Not that there's a quick fix. Attracting both tourists and innovators to populate a burgeoning arts scene is tricky, she says, "Can you capture lightning in a bottle?"

Miami succeeded big-time. Since 2000, when Miami Beach began hosting the annual, contemporary fine-art fair Art Basel, the city changed from a provincial bit player to a World Capital of Cool. For one week every December, collectors, artists, dealers, curators, and art aficionados from around the globe mob the city – a record 50,000 in 2011. And these are big-spending visitors, whose estimated $500 million in direct economic impact powered the city from recession to reinvention.

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