The economic power of culture

Standing up for arts funding often attracts debate from critics who see the arts as a luxury to be indulged in only when the economy is booming.

But do these critics realize who truly benefits from the arts? Certainly, the artists and audiences benefit. But so do businesses, residents, students and local governments, even those who aren’t directly involved in artistic or cultural activities.

The economic power of the arts in Atlanta isn’t a matter of hoping or speculating. Real figures prove the arts are an essential — not optional — part of the Atlanta’s economy:

• More than 5 million: The number of people — about half from outside Fulton Country — who come to Atlanta for arts and cultural events and attractions.

• $131 million: The amount those 5 million people spend every year on arts attractions.

• $168 million: The amount nonprofit arts and culture organizations contribute in direct spending to the local economy.

• $300 million: The amount generated for Atlanta by the nonprofit arts and cultural industry.

That’s $300 million more per year for local businesses like restaurants, hotels, retailers and transportation providers. But the impact stretches even further. Atlanta’s arts and cultural organizations also generate more than $14 million in local government revenue and more than $13 million in state government revenue per year. Those funds translate into improved schools, infrastructure and other programs that benefit the city and its residents.

In addition, the arts are a driver of opportunity that helps keep Atlanta working. Arts and cultural organizations and audiences create more than 9,400 full-time-equivalent jobs and produce more than $232 million in resident household income. Across Georgia, arts-related businesses employ more than 89,000 people.

With those numbers, it’s hard to argue against a strong arts economy. And we don’t have to look very far within Atlanta to see evidence of this. Atlanta’s arts treasures, from the Woodruff Arts Center to innovative programs in every neighborhood, attract visitors and spending from around the world.

One example is Elevate, Atlanta’s program to enhance cultural offerings downtown. Widespread exposure benefits artists such as the Goat Farm, about 20 artists transforming dumpsters, alleys and parks into art galleries; and visual artist Joanie Lemercier, who installs light-based optical illusions of Atlanta’s urban landscape, and any of the more than 100 artists who performed in October. The flood of new customers visiting the various neighborhoods to experience Elevate’s music, street art and performances benefits all local businesses, not just the arts.

We see it year after year in the Atlanta Jazz Festival, the largest free jazz festival in the country. Every May, visitors from the U.S. and around the world come to Atlanta to hear jazz legends and up-and-coming jazz greats. The festival generates millions of dollars in local economic activity, benefiting residents and businesses across the city, regardless of their tastes in music.

Atlanta also is attracting new visitors from around the world with the recently opened Center for Civil and Human Rights, adjacent to the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola. These and other attractions will be easier to access thanks to the upcoming Atlanta Streetcar, which will open up downtown to even more visitors without the strain of more traffic.

Although these new centers and attractions show the city is committed to moving forward, the arts aren’t immune to market forces. Like any industry, arts and cultural organizations must be nimble and ready to adapt to a changing market.

In early November, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Americans for the Arts co-hosted the annual National Arts Marketing Project Conference. This gathering of more than 600 arts marketing professionals was formed to explore the future of arts marketing and audience engagement.

Attendees discussed how arts and cultural organizations can remain relevant in a world where tastes and trends seem to change by the minute. They tackled tough industry challenges as they examined ways to increase audience engagement, utilize new technology, adapt to new engagement models and increase the appeal of the arts across generations.

They did not find simple answers to these issues, but they generated ideas that will be enacted through the coming weeks, months and years. These conversations show the arts and culture industry is committed to ensuring the arts remain an immeasurable cultural force and indisputable economic driver in Atlanta and other cities across the country.

Robert L. Lynch is president and CEO of Americans for Arts. Camille Russell Love is executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs in Atlanta.