Government spending on the arts helps economy, advocacy group says

Research presented at Cultural Town Meeting

October 30, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

An unusual solution to the nation's economic downturn was proposed last night at Baltimore's second annual Cultural Town Meeting -- spend more money on the arts.

"Our research shows that it's illogical public policy to cut funding to the arts at a time when governments need revenue to pay for critical services," said Randy Cohen, vice president of research for Americans for the Arts, a nationwide advocacy group. "Support for the arts does not come at the expense of economic development."

About 250 members of Baltimore's arts and cultural organizations attended the brainstorming session at the Baltimore Convention Center. Cohen was a featured speaker, along with author and economist Richard Florida.

According to a study by Americans for the Arts, people in the United States spent $134 billion in arts-related economic activity in 2000, Cohen said. Of that, $53 billion was spent by nonprofit arts groups, and $81 billion by audiences.

The arts advocacy group was particularly interested in the second category -- spending by ticket holders -- so it did a follow-up survey of 40,000 audience members throughout the United States. Nationally, the survey found, the average attendee spends $22.87 -- in addition to the price of admission -- on meals, transportation, baby-sitting and parking.

"If you invest in a cultural product, you will draw audiences, and people spend money in addition to the cost of the event," Cohen said. "It's a boon to your local merchants."

Florida said that's partly because there's more culture in a broad sense in the United States now than at any other time. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, he says that the "creative class" -- which includes artists, scientists and entrepreneurs -- has grown from less than 10 percent of the labor force in 1950 to one-third of all workers this year. He said the size of a city's creative class is the single best predictor of its economic vitality.

The good news, Florida said, is that Baltimore has all the elements he thinks are needed to bring about an urban renaissance: brilliant scientific minds, a manufacturing history, charming old neighborhoods, an attractive waterfront.

"Really, all you need to do is figure out how to harness the talents of your creative people," he said. "It will come."

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he is proud that Baltimore arts have grown in the past year despite tough economic times, as shown by the new Highlandtown arts district and planned Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

"We have a tremendous amount of human capital, creative people in every single neighborhood of our city," O'Malley said. "Don't forget, we've been digging ourselves out of an awfully deep hole. The fact is, we're imagining again."

Cohen noted several examples of the kind of creative problem-solving that Florida advocates. Communities nationwide have come up with innovative solutions for funding local arts groups, he said, including:

Metropolitan Denver, where voters in a referendum approved a sales tax increase of one-tenth of 1 percent for the arts. The tax increase is generating about $35 million a year, Cohen said.

St. Louis, which has a property tax that funnels about $40 million annually into its five largest arts institutions, and in return, city residents receive free admission to museums.

San Diego, which pays for its $13 million arts commission through its hotel tax.

"An investment in culture is an investment in economic growth," Cohen said.

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