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US Arts Nonprofits Generated $166.3 Billion in Spending in 2015, Report Shows

A new report shows how the nonprofit culture sector stimulates the economy both locally and nationally.

Audience members gathered under Stephen Talasnik’s “Satellite No. 5: Pioneer” (2015) at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
Audience members gathered under Stephen Talasnik’s “Satellite No. 5: Pioneer” (2015) at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

The average culture vulture in the US spends an additional $31.47 whenever she attends an arts event: almost $17 on food, about $4.50 on souvenirs and gifts, over $3 on local transportation — it all adds up.

This is the micro level of the $166.3 billion in economic activity that the nonprofit arts sector contributed to the US economy in 2015, according to a study released on Saturday by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that promotes the arts and and arts education. Some $63.8 billion of that is spent by arts and culture nonprofits themselves, and another $102.5 billion is generated from event-related spending by audiences. According to the report, those $102.5 billion supported 2.3 million jobs, providing $15.7 billion in government revenue and $46.6 billion in household income.

“It’s nice when you can put a number on things people know are happening but can’t put a figure to, like the economic impact of culture, but I think there are probably more people than that who love the arts, but don’t ever think of it as an industry,” Randy I. Cohen, the Vice President of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts and the lead researcher on the report, told Hyperallergic. “This is a myth-buster for a lot of people. It changes the conversation about the arts from one of charity to one of industry.”

Different metrics showing the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry (courtesy Americans for the Arts)
Different metrics showing the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry (courtesy Americans for the Arts)

The fifth “Arts & Economic Prosperity” report from Americans for the Arts (available in eight-, 24-, and 542-page versions) makes a compelling case for the vital economic contributions of the nonprofit cultural sector. For instance, in 2015 US arts organizations supported 1.15 million jobs, or about .83% of the total US workforce; for the sake of comparison, elementary school teachers make up 1% of the national workforce, while police officers account for .45%. The organization’s calculations ignores the for-profit culture industry, which includes a robust gallery system, auction shouses, publications, and other ventures that don’t fit into the nonprofit model.

Cultural workers compared to other sectors of the US workforce (courtesy Americans for the Arts)
Cultural workers compared to other sectors of the US workforce (courtesy Americans for the Arts)

The American for the Arts report comes at a time of great vulnerability for arts funding, as President Trump has proposed eliminating the country’s biggest cultural grant-giving organization, the National Endowment for the Arts.

“With current threats against nonprofit organizations, such as limiting the federal charitable tax deduction, the $27.5 billion in revenue back to the government generated by arts industry expenditures shows that municipal, state, and federal arts support is not a one-way street,” Robert L. Lynch, the president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, said in a statement. “Rather, there is a benefit of substantial revenue back to government that accompanies the public good that these organizations and their audiences provide to their community.”

The report, tabulated with the help of economists from the Georgia Institute of Technology, draws from detailed spending and attendance figures provided by 14,439 cultural organizations and a whopping 212,691 audience surveys. It offers startlingly detailed figures about US citizens’ typical cultural consumption patterns and the way cultural organizations’ spending generates even more economic activity in their communities.

Average spending per person per cultural event, excluding the cost of admission (courtesy Americans for the Arts)
Average spending per person per cultural event, excluding the cost of admission (courtesy Americans for the Arts)

For instance, the report shows that, on average, 34.1% of attendees at a given cultural event travel from a different county to attend the event, and that those out-of-county visitors typically spend about twice as much money on expenditures related to their cultural outings as local attendees — $47.57 for visitors, as opposed to the $23.44 spent by locals (averaging out to the aforementioned $31.47). Of those arts attendees crossing county lines, 69.9% said the primary purpose for their trip was to go to a cultural event.

The report is broken down into 341 study regions covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, it does not include the nation’s two biggest cultural capitals, Los Angeles and New York City, both of which declined to participate in the report, a spokesperson for Americans for the Arts explained. (Los Angeles participated in the previous edition, in 2012.) One can only imagine how many billions of dollars in economic activity those two cities’ culture nonprofits generate; for comparison’s sake, arts nonprofits in the nation’s third-largest city, Chicago, generated $3.2 billion in economic activity in 2015, while Washington, DC’s arts nonprofits generated $2.9 billion. Nevertheless, the report’s (very conservative) nationwide estimates of $63.8 billion in organizational spending, $102.5 billion in audience spending, and $166.3 billion total were reached through a system of proportional averaging based on population and therefore include New York City and Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, the report’s breakdown by study region allows you to see, for instance, that in 2015 the total cultural expenditures in the state of Hawaii ($122.9 million) were almost equivalent to those in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts ($125.7 million). The overall picture gleaned from the report, meanwhile, shows that the cultural sector’s contribution to US gross domestic product has steadily risen since 2009, totaling $730 billion in 2014 — or about 4.2% of total GDP. Perhaps those are the sorts of figures that can sway decision-makers who only care about the bottom line.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article suggested that the national spending figures in the Americans for the Arts report did not factor in the activities of culture nonprofits in New York City and Los Angeles, which did not participate in the report. However, Americans for the Arts clarified that because of the methodology used to arrive at the $166.3 billion estimate, that number does in fact reflect a very conservative estimate of culture spending in those cities. The article’s title and text have been revised to make this clear.

The arts and culture sector's contribution to US GDP (courtesy Americans for the Arts)
The arts and culture sector’s contribution to US GDP (courtesy Americans for the Arts)

Download the full and summarized versions of Americans for the Arts’s “Arts & Economic Prosperity 5” report here.

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