Is lack of interest in Arts Commission example of volunteerism decline?

When we first reported the creation of the Washougal Arts Commission in May 2018, the idea seemed like a no-brainer: the group had $5,000 in seed money, a thriving network of local artists and Joyce Lindsay, a strong arts advocate and member of the Washougal City Council and the Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance, had thrown her weight behind the new commission.

More than one year later, however, Lindsay has moved to northern Washington state to be closer to family and the momentum behind the Arts Commission, which would advise city leaders on all things “arts and culture,” has seemingly stalled.

Although the city put out feelers for commission members in early August, only one person has applied to be on the five- to nine-member group.

The problem might be a simple matter of exposure — too little outreach to the right folks — but it could also be a sign that Camas-Washougal’s “creative class” is, like many Americans, stretched too thin to dedicate their free time to volunteer work.

There is no doubt that Washougal has a thriving art scene. The city has backed numerous public art installations and its annual Washougal Studio Artists Tour is a popular Mother’s Day Weekend attraction for local residents as well as regional visitors.

And, as we’ve written before on this Opinion page, the value of promoting the arts on a local level is a smart move for Washougal and Camas. In 2016, a state report showed the “creative economy” in Washington contributed to more than 200,000 jobs, reported earnings of nearly $22.8 billion, and provided workers an average annual wage of $51,000.

What’s more, Business Insider magazine in 2018 reported that Washington had one of the top three “artsiest” state economies, second only to New York. And 2013 data collected by Arts of Clark County and the Clark County Arts Commission showed Clark County’s creative economy was performing better than the national average: with Clark County residents spending nearly $6 million on musical instruments and supplies in 2011, and independent artists, writers and performers in Clark County reporting sales of nearly $20 million in 2011.

So it makes sense that Washougal leaders want to have a more direct line into the city’s burgeoning arts scene.

But getting people who may already be working long hours, spending their mornings and early evenings stuck in traffic and caring for young families to devote their free time to public service is becoming a pretty tough sell.

The U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2018 that volunteer rates across the country dropped to a 15-year low from 2005 to 2015, with fewer than one in four Americans devoting any time to volunteer work. At the same time, the percentage of people donating money to nonprofits dropped from nearly 67 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2014.

Suburban areas, according to the report, had the highest drop in volunteer rates.

Robert Grimm, director of the Do Good Institute and co-author of the report, said the numbers were foreboding, saying, “Continued declines in community participation will produce detrimental effects for everyone, including greater social isolation, less trust in each other, and poor physical and mental health.”

Time will tell if Washougal’s new Arts Commission attracts enough volunteers to get off the ground. Applications are due by Oct. 21, with the first Commission meeting scheduled for January 2020. Interested? Application materials are available at Washougal City Hall and online at cityof washougal.us/arts. For more information about the Arts Commission, visit cityofwashougal.us/bc.

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