THE ARTS ECONOMY IS WORTH BILLIONS

03/24/2017 04:51 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2017

Let’s all be really clear about this: the arts are good for business because the arts are business. Big business. In 2015, the arts contributed more than 4% to our nation’s GDP—or, more accurately, $704 Billion, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. To put that number into sharp relief, Agriculture and Mining—together—make up 3% of our nation’s GDP. But what’s much more important is how this number breaks down at the local level: the arts economy is thousands of small businesses (theatres, museums, galleries, concert halls) whose influence reaches across every sector, creating jobs for electricians, technicians, carpenters, engineers, construction, and administrative positions—not to mention the artists themselves. And when you factor in the economic impact of the arts on local businesses, like parking, restaurants, shopping, and other related services, it’s no wonder cities big and small clamor for an arts economy: it is an incredibly powerful and trusted economic engine.

“I’m a third-generation stagehand and electrician, after my father and his father. And I got two brothers in the industry and my stepmother as well,” says Thomas Gillaspie of Lincoln, Nebraska. Gillaspie is a proud member of IATSE Local 151, the labor union representing over 130,000 technicians, artisans, and craftpersons in the entertainment industry. “There’s a lot of good hard-working folks who depend on the arts to feed their families. This is full-time employment.”

Michael Lange, the Executive Director of the Wyoming Arts Council, agrees, adding that “in Wyoming, we know there’s over 8,500 jobs in the creative sector full-time. Wyoming’s second largest industry is tourism, after our extraction industries [coal, gas]. We know that folks that travel specifically for the arts spend twice as much money, so those arts events play a critical role in the amount of income that comes into the state through arts spending in a state like ours.”

Those numbers bear out pretty impressively, not only in Wyoming but regionally as well. Take the seven counties that make up the Central Florida region, where $15.2 million is generated in tax revenue just to their local governments alone. When you zoom out to look at the state as a whole, you find 29,735 creative industries in Florida, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, generating $14 billion in annual payroll, and $49.7 billion in annual revenues.

In major markets, like the great city of Chicago, 78,000 full-time jobs in the arts produce over $2 billion in household income for working-class families in the arts. Those taxes don’t hurt either, with $165 million in tax dollars going to local government and $157 million in tax dollars going to the to the state of Illinois. And when you take Broadway sales alone, NYC served a record 13 million attendees, with Broadway theatres grossing $1.373 billion. The jobs that creates and the revenue that generates is not only significant—it is classic American enterprise at work.

So what does this all have to do with the NEA and NEH, whose funding is a feeble .01% of the federal budget—or as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it “1/3-inch…relative to a football field.” Everything.

“NEA programs are found in every congressional district in the country and benefit Americans of every socioeconomic status. For every dollar that the NEA puts in, we put nine dollars back out,” says Zachary Whittenburg, Communications and Engagement Director for Arts Alliance Illinois. “Without the critical ‘last-mile’ investments made by the NEA and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, you run the risk of leaving exurban and rural communities out on the vine. And this diverse, vibrant, well-distributed cultural activity is something people look for in deciding where to live and where to raise their families.” Whittenburg’s sentiment was echoed by everyone I spoke with from California, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Nebraska to New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida: the arts not only spur economic activity, they are an invitation to families to join the culture—because there is culture.

The NEA not only acts as venture capitalism for the arts as we generally think of them (visual, literary, and performing arts); they also fund countless arts programs in rural and small metropolitan communities for homeless children, the elderly, those in hospice, the developmentally disabled, at-risk youth, and numerous arts in healthcare programs. This is an organization that is not only helping seed the economy and American culture, it is actively making people’s lives better—those left behind, forgotten about, or on the fringe. Eliminating the NEA sends the wrong message to our economy, to the artist-job creator, and to those populations who need this funding the most.

A defensive posture here is no longer sustainable. We must be front-footed and demand the federal government to increase investment in the arts so that we may continue to grow our culture and the millions of small businesses, independent contractors, and home-grown American jobs created by our diverse arts economy. We must demand this for the NEA, for the NEH, and for the CPB. The arts and humanities are not luxury, they are not extra-curricular, and they are not disposable. They are the face, heart, soul, and conscience of America telling the story of our values to each other and to the world. The stakes of President Johnson’s words at the NEA’s founding in 1965 have never been greater: “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.”

So here’s a dispatch to every single representative and legislator, from the hard-working folks who bring you the American culture that has defined us at home and in the world: Cut the Bullshit, Capitalize the Arts.

You have $704 billion reasons staring right at you.

For more information on the economic impact of the arts on regions, states, cities, and towns, check out the Arts & Economic Prosperity Report by Americans for the Arts, and please support the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Also, go do something artful. It may change your life.

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