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Direct effect

A new report affirms the benefits of arts on the regional economy

BRATTLEBORO—Windham County nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generated nearly $11 million for the local economy, according to a study from a national organization, Americans for the Arts (AFTA).

The Arts Council of Windham County (ACWC) collaborated with AFTA to collect county data.

“The main point made with this study is that the arts are not an economic black hole,” said Zon Eastes, who administered the Windham County portion of the study. “The money the community invests and spends in the arts stays in the community and gets re-spent in very helpful ways.”

But, Eastes said that this study shows in “real numbers that there’s no denying that arts return investment to their community.”

Doug Cox, ACWC president, said, “These numbers are not surprising and in line with a similar study we did in 2007. The arts community is active and healthy, though struggling with the economic conditions since 2008.

According to its website, AFTA strives to advance the arts and arts education in America. Among its core beliefs, the organization states, “arts are fundamental to humanity and have the power to transform lives.”

The AFTA study looked, nationwide, at the spending of 182 nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences.

According to AFTA, the arts and culture industry in 2010 generated $135.2 billion in economic activity annually. The industry supports about 4.1 million jobs and brings in about $22.3 billion in government revenue.

In 2010, Windham County’s industry brought in a total of $10,787,982 in organizational and event spending, based on results from 39 nonprofit arts organizations and 600 audience surveys.

Arts and culture in the county support 330 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs.

The study also found that volunteer and in-kind support for arts organizations in the county had a value of $1.2 million.

AFTA published a similar report in 2007. Brattleboro participated in the previous study.

For this round, said Eastes, the ACWC expanded the study to the entire county.

Eastes said one report finding regarding the 2007-08 recession struck him. The report showed that audience spending dropped “significantly,” about 30 percent, after the recession.

At the same time, arts organizations’ provision of services remained relatively consistent.

“Arts organizations are used to living on next to nothing,” he said, adding they continued to move forward despite the down economy.

Visitors who spend

Another finding Eastes remarked on was that the arts provided an opportunity for capturing tourist dollars.

According to the report, visitor spending on events, such as live theater or festivals, tends to outpace local spending.

In Windham County, the average event-related expenditure per resident equalled $11.58. Visitors spent about $44.95 per person. These figures excluded the cost of admission.

The fact that visitors, who also buy dinner, get hotel rooms, or shop while attending an event, spend more than residents is a “no, duh” finding, said Eastes.

“But, there it is in black and white,” said Eastes of the numbers. “There’s no denying.”

Arts and culture organizations serve as assets to communities seeking to garner more tourism money, he said.

The almost $11 million brought in by the county’s arts and culture industry comes close to some of the county’s other economic numbers, said Eastes.

Brattleboro’s 2010 revenue budget totaled at $15.27 million. The town of Rockingham’s 2011 revenue budget was $5 million. Sovernet’s annual revenues run between $10 million and $12 million. Marlboro College’s annual budget is $13 million.

On a larger scale, Vermont’s Gross Domestic Product runs about $25 billion.

In his report for ACWC, Eastes also compared Windham County to towns and counties with similar population numbers, based on 2010 population statistics. The comparison helped illustrate how some areas are better at attracting people to events.

Iron County, Utah, home to the Utah Shakespearean Festival, has $9.3 million in organizational expenditures, but over $32.9 million in audience spending.

“Most of our events are hidden,” rather than large festivals, said Eastes.

Every community is unique, he added. Windham County tends to serve as a place to incubate ideas, Eastes said, but looking at how the economies of comparable areas benefit from the arts remains useful.

“While the study does not include action steps to improve the economic health of our county, there are several areas that look promising,” said Cox. “The percentage of audience from outside the area is below the national average, and they spend less per-person than the national average. With our prime location within 3-5 hours of major metropolitan areas and the Vermont brand for quality, we should be able to do better.”

For Eastes, having the AFTA’s survey results in hand helps to add legitimacy to the role of arts organizations in Windham County.

The arts need to sit at every table — from planning, to design, to municipal infrastructure — in the community.

“A community will benefit if there are arts-savvy people at the table,” he said.

In Brattleboro, the community may love or respect the arts, but the industry isn’t always part of the community process, Eastes said.

Eastes said the study had some limitations. The numbers of organizations and audience surveys were low. Also, the study did not account for individual, for-profit artists, or the spending related to educational courses like those offered by the New England Center for Circus Arts.

Still, said Eastes, if the data was strong with low numbers, imagine what the economic picture could look like when considering the county’s entire arts and culture industry. Or, if the county captured more visitors’ dollars.

Enriching the dialogue

For Kate Anderson, chair of the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee, the report has prompted her to contemplate further questions about how arts and culture fit within Windham County. Anderson has spoken to The Commons in previous interviews about the necessity for artists to thrive financially.

“The AFTA reports are the most frequently used statistics to demonstrate the ‘value’ of the nonprofit arts and culture activities in context of economic value,” wrote Anderson in an email. “I would like to see a discussion that explores and realistically establishes the value of the arts as catalyst, as stimulant to the economy — as they do to quality of life — to measure how this resource helps create a climate that’s friendly and supportive of risk taking and innovation.”

Anderson wrote that having the downtown full on a Gallery Walk night, and Smithsonian Magazine’s ranking Brattleboro as 11th on the list of 25 best small towns in the United States are not enough of a basis for a useful exchange meant to inform the work of economic development and policy thinkers.

“Yet if it is true that knowledge industries are attracted to arts-rich areas, and if there is anything to the New England Knowledge Corridor, then, here is a reason to look into the arts sector and better understand its functioning,” she wrote. “Perhaps this argues for investing in more efficient arts/culture/creative industries. Might that investment include increased managerial capacity, increased information sharing networks, joint marketing, and better business strategies based on entrepreneurial training?”

Tripp Muldrow, a city planner and consultant with Arnett Muldrow & Associates, said that some people in the economic development field are still uncomfortable moving toward a creative economy.

People question if there is a strong correlation between the creative industries and economic output, he said.

Muldrow disagrees with this line of questioning. The creative economy is no more weak than traditional economic development initiatives.

“Why the double standard,” he asked. “Why should the arts have to prove itself?"

The arts usually have to prove itself with fewer economic incentive tools as well, Muldrow added.

In Muldrow’s opinion, the U.S. has traditionally built its economic development infrastructure around “chasing smoke stacks,” like manufacturing. If a county wants to build a creative economy, it only needs to focus on building that creative economy.

“Vermont is very advanced [regarding] the creative economy in the nation and we’re all still learning,” he said.

“What are we doing to say they’re [artists] welcome,” Muldrow said. “And what are we doing to make that path as easy as possible."

Muldrow thought that Windham County’s proximity to the metropolitan areas of New York City and Boston was an opportunity to attract more innovative industries, artists, and their partners looking to live “the Vermont lifestyle.”

Eastes sees the study as a tool rather than a goal.

The study has limitations, he said, but “it can help the county understand that arts can, and do, provide economic impacts.”

It’s an important lesson that the arts are an economic asset and not a drain, Eastes said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #168 (Wednesday, September 5, 2012).

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