New data released Tuesday suggest that in a single year, the US arts and culture sector contributed a whopping $763.6 billion to the nation’s economy — more than the entire GDP of Switzerland.
That translates into 4.2% of the US economy, suggesting that the arts and culture sector is worth almost as much as the food and agriculture industry (valued at around a trillion dollars a year).
The figures come from 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available. They were compiled by the nonpartisan Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
“What we’re seeing is steady growth,” Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and analysis, told Hyperallergic. He called the numbers promising, and said they follow in the footsteps of similar studies of other industries. “The nation needs to know, just as with other kinds of sectors.”
The data were released less than a month after President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal, which suggested the elimination of federal funding for the NEA.
The NEA and BEA figures include some surprising details. For example, the American arts sector has a trade surplus of $20 billion, meaning that the US exports far more arts-related goods and services than it imports. Movies and TV help to tip the scales (which makes sense, given that Black Panther alone has already earned almost $1 billion).
For the first time, the figures also include the role of specific industries in each state. Louisiana, for instance, has a movie production industry valued at $2.7 billion, likely due to special film industry tax credits. In Wisconsin, “art-related printing” contributed more than half a billion to the state’s economy.
These kinds of economic studies of the arts have their critics. “There is a risk that we create all sorts of unrealistic expectations for the sector,” said Eleonora Belfiore, a professor of communication and media studies at Loughborough University, in England. By framing arts and culture as quantifiable resources, Belfiore said, researchers could give lawmakers an excuse to stop funding arts initiatives that don’t have obvious monetary value.
According to Belfiore, similar economic studies have been around for decades, but she considers many to be unreliable. “The aim was always to offer fresh grounds or justification for funding,” she said. “All the people producing these figures have a vested interest in the numbers being impressive.”
In spite of these concerns, economic estimates are now seen as a necessity for sectors that receive public funding. “If this stuff doesn’t get measured, it’s going to get forgotten,” said Daniel Fujiwara, an economist at Simetrica, which is often commissioned to estimate the value of arts and culture. “If you’re not doing that in the arts, you’re going to lose out on public funding decisions.”
Still, there are clear limits to what economics can say about the state of the arts. “I certainly don’t go to a museum because I think it generates jobs,” Fujiwara said. Neither does Sunil Iyengar, the NEA researcher. “We can’t hope to measure the total value of the arts, because there’s just so many dimensions,” he told Hyperallergic. “This is one way of knowing.”