By most measures, Walla Walla doesn’t lack for the arts. Consider the lineup of standing music events from the Walla Walla Symphony, the Chamber Music Festival or the many concerts in venues like the Gesa Power House Theatre.
Theater is also well represented, largely through Whitman’s Harper Joy annual lineup and the Little Theatre of Walla Walla. Consider, too, the museums in the area, above all Fort Walla Walla Museum. Fold into the mix some visual art galleries and what’s culturally not to like here — for residents and visitors.
If a goal is to track the vibrancy of the arts over time, it’s not an easy task. Data on ticket sales for and visits to the various venues are arduous, and likely impossible, to collect. Still, recognizing the importance of the arts and culture, Walla Walla Trends follows a proxy measure: The Number of Arts Related Businesses. If there is a lively arts and culture scene, commerce should follow.
This indicator shows that the number of arts-related business last peaked in 2011, at 20 businesses in the county. The series comes from “County Business Patterns” by the U.S. Census.
What’s an art-related business? In the Trends, the following are counted: art galleries, camera & photographic supply stores; book stores; performing arts companies; performing arts promoters; independent artists, writers & performers; musical instrument stores; compact disc & record stores; and museums.
Since 2011, the number has declined a bit, to 16. Yet, Walla Walla’s “intensity” of arts businesses is still higher than that of Washington state. As Indicator 1.4.1 reveals, the county registered 11 such businesses per 1,000 businesses, or 1.1 per 100 firms, in 2017. This rate is considerably higher than the Washington and U.S. averages by about 50 percent. It is also the highest among all Eastern Washington metros.
The lead in the intensity of arts businesses over most of Washington is likely larger, if we add nontraditional commercial space devoted to visual art. Many winery tasting rooms now act as galleries, with art for sale on their walls. But these establishments of course are not counted as art galleries. While this pairing is now common for many wineries statewide, the concentration of tasting rooms in Walla Walla is far above the average for nearly all Washington cities.
Of course, more Walla Walla artistic businesses exist than the 16 currently shown for 2017. Those tracked in indicator 1.4.1 cover only firms with a payroll. Not surprisingly for the arts, solo practitioners abound. Census follows these members of the arts community (and for all sectors) via a series known as the “Non-Employers.” This class of businesses is not a part of Walla Walla Trends, but some insights are available from the most recent release, for 2016.
In a word, there are far more artists In Walla Walla than the three with payroll that are part of the Trends indicator. For 2016, self-employed artists, writers and performers tallied 115. In the other categories of arts businesses, the relative size of the self-employed were not nearly as large.
In contrast to the take-away from “Arts Related Businesses” indicator, the relative size of artists here is smaller than the Washington average. A caveat to that calculation, however, comes from higher ed. The three higher educational institutions employ many instructors who perform or create for enjoyment and consumption beyond their schools’ walls. And as this column has noted before, Walla Walla can point to a higher percentage of college students (2- and 4-year) than state averages. So it’s logical to expect that the county’s “academic artists” will raise the relative size of the group of “non-employer artists” to close to state averages.
As Walla Walla’s population (slowly) grows, it will fascinating to observe whether the community becomes even more of an art hub.