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," he said.

Cohen was a featured speaker at the event, along with author and economist Richard Florida.

About 250 members of Baltimore's arts and cultural organizations attended the workshop and brainstorming session at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said 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 do have a tremendous amount of human capital, creative people in every single neighborhood of our city," O'Malley said. "There is an extraordinary quality and quantity of arts organizations that bring life to our city."

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 was spent 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 the spending habits of 40,000 audience members in 34 states and 91 communities.

Nationally, the survey found, the average attendee spends $22.87 - in addition to the price of admission - on meals, transportation, baby-sitting and parking. Out-of-town visitors spent $38.05 on average, while spending by local residents averaged $21.75.

"The study really makes the case that 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."

Given these findings, Cohen can't help being concerned that all major sources of funding for the arts are on the downswing: governmental spending, private sector donations and ticket sales.

For instance, the budgets for state arts boards nationwide show a decrease of 38 percent between 2001 and 2004.

In Maryland, the state arts board's 2004 budget will be about $11 million - or 9.6 percent - less than it was this year, a situation that Cohen describes as typical, if lamentable.

But he is heartened by creative solutions to the funding problem - solutions that he wishes Maryland cities would consider adopting.

"Some communities are actually increasing support for the arts," he said. "In Indianapolis, the only departments that will increase under the 2004 budget are the police department and the arts council."

Others he noted are:

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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