It is no secret that tourism is a major revenue generator state and countywide. Locally speaking, the general assumption tends to be that the tourists who visit -- and the dollars they spend -- come for one thing: the fruit of our vines. Certainly there are other appealing aspects of Sonoma County as a destination, but in terms of our identity as a region, this is Wine Country first and foremost. This is no accident. Our brand is the product of a great deal of vision, effort, and investment on the part of the wine industry, in conjunction with the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau (SCTB).

 Of course, tourists need a hot meal and a place to lay their heads at night, which is why the local hospitality industry has grown to figure so prominently in the local economy. According to recent reports from SCTB, more than 7 million visitors choose Sonoma County each year, spending $1.25 billion and generating $79.6 million in tax revenues. While it might be assumed that the majority of that spending goes for room and board, in 2011 visitors spent less on accommodations, 17 percent, than they did on arts, entertainment, and recreation, 19 percent.

Statewide, arts, entertainment and rercreation are major generators of tourist spending revenue, with annual income growing from $7.8 billion in 1992 to $14.1 billion in 2010. Much of this spending takes place in large urban centers, but local figures are nothing to sneeze at, with tourist spending in the same category growing from $315 million to $605 million in the North Coast region during the same period. According to the latest numbers for Sonoma County, tourism revenue from arts, entertainment, and recreation accounts for an impressive $247 million, 19.7 percent of local totals.

 If food and beverage is our primary economic driver, then the arts are a fiscally convenient cottage industry. Despite the numbers, the arts have remained a relatively fringe element of the local identity, at least from the budgetary perspective. Creative culture crops up all over Sonoma County -- wildcrafted, as it were, by artists themselves, more than 130 nonprofit arts organizations and for-profit art businesses, and a small but loyal philanthropic community -- generating substantial revenues for the county as a whole without any centralized funding, branding effort or media campaign.

Compare the state of the arts in Sonoma County, then, with that in other California communities that have recognized what they stand to gain and are willing to invest in their local creative culture. Sacramento County has long supported the arts through a dedicated public agency, the Metropolitan Arts Commission. Staffed by no fewer than eleven appointed commissioners, the SMAC works with city and county funds to promote the arts through direct support to artists and arts organizations, proactive marketing, education, and outreach campaigns, and the facilitation of strategic partnerships.

In 2009, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson launched the regional “For Arts’ Sake” initiative to expand the reach of local arts and arts education programs and to build the brand of Sacramento as a cultural arts destination. “For Sacramento to become a thriving, world-class destination,” it is stated in the For Arts’ Sake 2010-2011 Annual Report, "it must also be a city of big ideas and the arts are vital to that goal.” Such statements are not uncommon in the realm of politics, of course, but Mr. Johnson’s is backed by concrete goals: to increase tourism and media revenues related to the arts by 20 percent, to establish a sustainable public funding mechanism that generates $15 million to $20 million per year, to increase use of vacant spaces for the arts by 25 percent, and to increase private-sector giving to the arts by 10 to 20 percent, among other targets, by 2014.

One of the most visible components of the For Arts’ Sake initiative is the well-conceived “Arts. Open Daily” advertising campaign, which integrates the Sacramento arts brand by making the arts visible and driving residents and visitors alike to a centralized online arts calendar. In 2010, Sacramento’s business and arts communities came together to build on that foundation with a citywide event to coincide with National Arts and Humanities Month. Artober: 31 Days of Art and Soul successfully showcased the region’s finest cultural arts offerings and transformed the general brand into a concrete, month-long attraction. From “Arts. Open Daily” to “Arts. Open. October,” the 2011 program was supported by a major campaign to promote tourist participation and increase direct and indirect revenues to the community.

Likewise, San Diego’s “Vibrant Culture Vibrant City” initiative has grown directly out of government and business community awareness of local arts as an important civic resource. “Every investment we make in the arts today,” says San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders in the 2010 Economic and Community Impact report, “has a lasting benefit to our economy and the other bottom line: our quality of life.”Here, too, the emphasis is on the arts as an economic engine driven largely by cultural tourism.

Similar strageties for generating arts-driven tourism revenue are being taken up in communities all across California, in cities and smaller towns alike -- even in established luxury destinations. In Monterey County, the local Arts Council and Community Foundation teamed up back in 2007 to launch the Creative Monterey County Action Plan to “advance the vital role of arts and culture in building healthy communities and a dynamic regional economy.”

Their goals include not only increasing access, participation, and community support for the arts, but also expanding the county’s economic capacity through both cultural arts tourism and the fostering of creative industry, one of the world’s fastest-growing business sectors. We in Sonoma County would do well to take note of Monterey’s efforts, as their risk assessment statement on this subject applies equally to us: “Our greatest threat is from competition from other regions that are more affordable and more supportive.”

With more Americans choosing “staycations” and short-distance trips over expensive vacations abroad, communities such as Sacramento and San Diego are working to position themselves as attractive cultural destinations. What do we in Sonoma County stand to lose? Quite a lot, actually. Not all travelers are wine lovers, and not all wine lovers have tunnel vision.

Until now our local economy has enjoyed the added value of the arts without any real investment of funds or vision being made. With competition for market share ramping up, though, we would do well to consider growing our own brand in new ways. Even without increasing the number of visitors to the region, city and county revenues would be increased significantly if the visitors we are already hosting extended their stays by an average of just one day or returned at another date to experience one of the 250 arts and culture events taking place on average in Sonoma County each week. In order for that to happen, however, the arts must be visible.

The Arts Council of Sonoma County (ACSC), the 501(c)3 nonprofit designated by Sonoma County Board of Supervisors as state and local partner of California Arts Council, serves as the countywide agency for cultural arts programs, services, and advocacy. Yet, the organization is not directly funded or administered by local government, unlike comparable agencies in Sacramento and San Diego, among others.

In order for the Sonoma County arts sector to reach its potential as a cultural and economic engine, protect and grow existing market share it needs the support of our elected officials, the tourism industry and a cohesive vision. The way forward must be paved by advocacy, not only on the part of ACSC, but of a collaborative body of leaders from both sides of the profit and nonprofit sectors....

Courtney Arnold is the resource development manager for the Arts Council of Sonoma County, is managing editor of Elite Books/Energy Psychology Press and a writer and editor. For footnotes and additional data points please visit www.artscouncilsc.com/articles.