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Are We Actually Underestimating the True Value of the Arts?

Like so many of my colleagues across the county, I eagerly awaited the results of Arts and Economic Prosperity IV, and when the initial results arrived, I started meeting with community leaders to help spread the word, get their insights, and in a few cases, a juicy quote for a PowerPoint presentation.

I expected several folks, particularly those who support the arts in our community, to be impressed by the numbers and totally supportive of the study. They did not disappoint.

I also wanted to get the reaction from local economists, those who know more than the rest of us about these kinds of studies, but this also made me nervous. What I feared was a response along the lines of “You really don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or, “Why don’t you all just focus on art and we’ll deal with the economy.”

Because we are in the business of advocating for the arts, I was afraid that this study would be criticized for overstating our case, that we’re all just pumping up the numbers to make us look good and to justify our existence.

So I was not prepared for this criticism from Larry Swanson, director and chief economist for the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a regional studies and public education program at the University of Montana in Missoula:

“It is difficult to truly gauge how the arts benefit a community and area economic vitality by only looking at expenditures tied to non-profit arts organizations, even though these are important. Communities that are well-endowed in the arts are more vibrant and interesting places and tend to attract more educated and talented people who, once they make your community theirs, contribute in many other ways to area economic vitality. They first add to the area work force and to area economic activity and production, but they also buy homes and other area goods and services, they use area health care, they send their children to our schools, and contribute in a variety of other ways to area economies. So, it becomes very difficult to fully gauge the importance of the arts to area economic growth and vitality, simply by looking at yearly expenditures by arts organizations and by patrons of the arts attending events.” 

Mr. Swanson is trained to look at such studies with a healthy skepticism, and to point out problems in the methodology. But rather than overstating our case, this leading regional economist is saying that, if anything, we are underestimating the true value of the arts to the community and to area economic vitality. Whoa! That’s criticism we can all live with.

$135 billion in economic expenditures nationwide is only a glimpse of what art adds to our nation as a whole. I knew that we were unable to get information from a large percentage of eligible organizations, and I also was well aware that the for-profit sector—private art galleries, production companies, professional artists—were not part of this study, both of which would add to the final report on economic impact. But I did not expect a top-level economist to make an argument that sounded like one we might make, essentially preaching to the choir.

So, in a very real sense, I did get the “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” response, but in a good way, because Larry reaffirmed the idea that art and culture is central to our economy and vital to our nation and every community, in ways we all too often overlook.

His response makes me want to talk about Arts and Economic Prosperity IV even more than I did before, to keep this discussion active.

Thanks for the quote, Larry!

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