From Jobs to Dinner to Even Milking Cows, the Nonprofit Arts Are a Multi-Faceted Economic Powerhouse

Posted by Robert Lynch, Jun 17, 2017 0 comments

We seek out the arts in many ways. We attend free events in our communities, we buy tickets to events at venues large and small, we travel out of our counties for the arts—and in some cases, we jump on a plane just for that once-in-a-lifetime performance. Once in my twenties I drove 1,000 miles out of my way in my VW bus to get to Banff, Alberta, to visit their legendary arts community. 

In the moment of enjoyment, we may not realize the significant impact these arts and cultural experiences have on the local, regional, and national economy as a whole.

In 2015, Americans for the Arts set out to determine this impact through Arts & Economic Prosperity® 5 (AEP5), the largest national study of its kind to measure the economic impact of arts spending. It has been five years since the last such study, which came shortly after the Great Recession. We focused on 341 regions representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including 14,439 arts and cultural organizations, and an extraordinary 212,691 audience members. Surveys were collected throughout 2016, and results were revealed this morning at Americans for the Arts’ Annual Convention in San Francisco.

The numbers are remarkable. Of the $166.3 billion of economic activity generated by America's arts industry, $63.8 billion came from nonprofit arts and culture organizations and $102.5 billion from event-related spending by their audiences. The arts and culture industry supported 4.6 million full-time jobs and generated $27.5 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments—a return well beyond their collective $5 billion in government arts investment. I’d like to underscore that with current threats against nonprofit organizations, such as limiting the federal charitable tax deduction, this $27.5 billion in revenue back to governments shows that municipal, state, and federal arts support is not a one-way street. Rather, there is a benefit of substantial revenue back to the government that comes with the public good that these arts organizations and their audiences give to their community. 

We have all been members of an audience at some point, and can recall generally how much we spent on a ticket. But what about other contributions to the local economy, this $102.5 billion in event-related expenses? When we attend an arts event, we may pay for parking, a babysitter, dinner at a restaurant, a souvenir, or dessert on the way home. Based on the 212,691 audience surveys conducted, the typical arts attendee spent $31.47 per person, per event, beyond the cost of admission. My favorite story among the hundreds of thousands of surveys is about a farmer who paid someone $60 to milk his cows while he was at the theater. This is an event-related expense that will certainly stay in my memory! 

A vibrant arts community not only keeps residents and their discretionary spending closer to home, it also attracts visitors who spend money and help local businesses thrive. In other words, it promotes tourism. Thirty-four percent of audiences we surveyed traveled from outside of the county in which the event took place. This event-related spending was more than twice that of their local counterparts ($47.57 vs. $23.44), and 69 percent of these nonlocal attendees indicated that the primary purpose of their visit was “specifically to attend this arts or cultural event.” Among local attendees, 41 percent said they would have traveled to a different community to attend a similar cultural event, if the event they wanted to attend was not taking place in their own community. That’s the sort of statistic I hope all our local government leaders begin to hear and take notice of.

By every measure, the results of AEP5 prove once again that the non-profit arts are an industry—a generator of government revenue, a cornerstone of tourism, and an employment powerhouse both locally and across the nation. Leaders who care about community and economic vitality, growing tourism, attracting an innovative workforce, and community engagement can feel good about investing in the arts.

Today, more than 1,100 community leaders, artists, urban planners, government officials, and advocates have come together at Americans for the Arts’ Annual Convention here in San Francisco with shared passion, creativity, resolve, and vision for better shaping communities across the nation through the arts. This time there is a new tool to help them make their case and ramp up their advocacy efforts.  

And know that however you enjoy the arts—whether it’s a free event in your community or you fly across the country and make a vacation out of it—YOU are contributing to not only the health and well-being of that community, but to the overall health and well-being of the entire nation.

This blog also was posted on The Huffington Post.

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