Study shows arts and culture mean business

Arts organizations support 511 jobs, generate $14.1 million annually


Bellingham Arts Commission chair Alexandra Wiley, seen here at the groundbreaking of the new Art and Children’s Museum on Aug. 2, hopes the new study showing the arts’ impact on Bellingham’s economy will lend credence to her belief that art and culture go hand in hand with economic development.


Some might say quantifying the impact of a flute solo or an abstract brush stroke is like trying to measure the memory of virtuosity.

But a recently released study funded by the city of Bellingham attempted to at least measure the economic impact of arts and culture organizations on Bellingham’s economy.

The Arts & Economic Prosperity III study found that Bellingham’s arts sector supported 511 jobs and generated $14.1 million in local economic activity in 2005.

The study also found that nonprofit arts and culture organizations spent $8.64 million and audiences spent $5.46 million in event-related activities, not including ticket prices, in 2005. The spending generated $9.52 million in household income to local residents and delivered $1.2 million in local and state government revenue, the study found.

Bellingham Arts Commissioners and local arts advocates are hoping the study lends credence to the concept that arts and culture are an integral part of Bellingham’s economic development, and should be funded more vigorously.

The study comes at a time when Bellingham’s Public Facilities District has completed its first phase of renovations to the Mount Baker Theatre and has just broken ground on the new Art and Children’s Museum on the corner of Flora Street and Grand Avenue. Meanwhile the city’s Planning and Community Development Department is sketching out plans to improve what has become known as the city’s arts district — an area that borders the intersection of Bay and Holly streets, the Whatcom Museum of History & Art and the Bellingham Public Library.

With the flourish of recent activity, it appears the future of arts and culture in Bellingham may be beginning to crescendo into a new artistic aria.


An economic sector

Alexandra Wiley and Debbi McCunn hope the study will galvanize the community into supporting and recognizing the economic importance of arts and culture in Bellingham.

“This is a demonstrable manner in which to enhance the support of arts in the community, that arts directly contribute to the economic well-being of our community,” said Wiley, who chairs the mayor-appointed Arts Commission. “And that our goals for increased funding for the arts are an important expenditure for the benefit of all our citizens.”

Wiley would like to see Bellingham follow other similar-sized cities that have a capital funding plan in place for arts and cultural projects, she said. While Bellingham has a small grants program that funds arts programs, she said there should be a designated portion of capital funds set aside for capital projects, like Seattle has done with the Seattle Center and McCaw Hall.

Compared to the same study first conducted in 2002, which used different organizations to report statistics, the economic impact of arts and culture has increased, but not drastically, in Bellingham the last five years.

But Wiley said there tends to be a lack of understanding in the community of the verifiable evidence showing that, as in all economic sectors, arts are important to the city’s health and economic growth.

While most will agree that arts are important to a community’s general wellbeing and sense of identity, McCunn added, community members and city officials in the past have tended to feel they need to choose between arts and economic development funding. But that sentiment is changing, she said, and Bellingham is becoming riper for arts and cultural enrichment, she said.

Part of this has to do with Bellingham’s increasingly entrepreneurial spirit and a shift away from an industrial-based economy after the closure of Georgia-Pacific.

“Over the last 10 years there has been growing evidence of a correlation between startup businesses and entrepreneurs being attracted to communities that have a strong arts and cultural community,” she said. “And so especially as we move out of a manufacturing economy, into a high-tech and intellectual property type of (economy), that is the type of population that is attracted to communities with strong arts and cultural programs.”

The study shows that not only do arts and culture organizations provide local jobs, they also spend money at local arts and business-supply stores, hardware stores and local media companies for advertising. Audiences — both local residents and tourists — spend money on hotels, restaurants, retail businesses, transportation and childcare, all of which support additional jobs in the community.

McCunn said if private, for-profit arts and culture business, such as theaters and galleries, had been included in the study, they would have simply amplified its results.


A growing tourism draw

The study shows that tourism dollars are a key component of the economic impact. While resident audience members spent an average of $14.14 on event-related activities, excluding the price of admission, visitors spent an average of $26.83, the study found. Although visitors only accounted for 15 percent of attendees, that figure is up from the 2002 study that found visitors represented 8.7 percent of attendees.

Last year, visitors to Bellingham attending the Anne Murray concert at the Mount Baker Theatre spent an average of $50.64 in addition to the price of admission, while residents spent $11.80. And at the La Bella Strada art festival, visitors spent an average of $64.63 compared to residents who spent an average of $15.47.

McCunn and Wiley said they think arts and culture tourism only has room to grow in Bellingham. As more visitors come to the city to see one event, they realize how much more the city has to offer in the arts and culture arena and return home planning future trips to Bellingham and telling their friends about their experience, they said.

Another example of this spiral effect is the recent Rodin sculpture exhibit at the Whatcom Museum, which was the only North American showing of that collection in 2006. Wiley said the exhibit attracted international visitors who were likely to return.

Nimbus co-owner Josh Silverman said during the Mount Baker Theatre’s busy winter season, upwards of 60 percent to 70 percent of his weekend business is from customers going to or coming from the theater. Gallery Walks, shows at the iDiOM Theater and other local venues also feed his restaurant with a steady stream of customers, he said.

Visitors typically spend more than locals, and hotels like the Chrysalis Inn and the Hotel Bellwether send guests to his dining room. Visitors are usually operating from a vacation budget, which tends to be bigger than most residents’ weekly dining-out allotments, he said. Silverman also has an arrangement with the Mount Baker Theatre, where audience members have access to special menus.

“While I don’t think it’s huge, whatever impact (arts and culture) has is important to the economy,” he said. “With Bellingham’s growth and expansion, hopefully we’ll see more people coming here for that purpose. We have a lot to offer.”


Building a viable arts district

With the new Art and Children’s Museum, Wiley said Bellingham’s artistic offerings will soon begin to swell.

The new museum, which broke ground Aug. 2, by the nature of its environmentally sensitive facilities will be able to host traveling shows exhib iting artists like Picasso, Monet and Van Gogh, Wiley said. Until now, the Whatcom Museum’s facility has been unable to support such collections, she said. The new museum will vastly impact the city’s tourism, she said.

The Public Facilities District (PFD), which was formed in 2002, is funding the new museum. The PFD is a funding mechanism developed by the state Legislature to support civic capital projects, such as Safeco Field in Seattle. The PFD receives funds through a portion of sales tax revenue generated in Whatcom County — 33 cents for every $1,000 — that would otherwise go to the state, and is used to fund bond issues for the projects.

Bellingham’s PFD has a 25-year time span and is expected to generate approximately $21 million to $22 million by 2027 to fund arts and culture projects in the civic center, said PFD manager Patricia Decker.

The PFD is responsible for upgrades to the Mount Baker Theatre, the first phase of which is already completed, and the construction of the new Art and Children’s Museum, which will cost about $16 million.

Decker said the PFD will potentially fund additional projects during its lifespan, including other performing arts facilities, street improvements and parking facilities.

Decker added that the PFD’s mission statement identifies its purpose as not only a funding mechanism, but also as a facilitative and foundational instrument to stimulate public and private investment in the arts and the arts district.

“We don’t expect to make everything happen,” she said.


Creating a cultural streetscape

A broader movement has focused on the creation of an arts district, she said, and the city is assisting in that effort with its Making Places for People project.

The project is using $1.6 million from real estate excise taxes for streetscape improvements in the arts district area, Special Projects Manager Tara Sundin said.

The city will perform three key street improvements in the next year that will help frame and identify the arts district, which is still a somewhat conceptual set of boundaries, she said. Originally, the city had planned on focusing on Flora Street improvements, but has since broadened the area’s scope, especially after considering the large amount of pedestrian activity centering around arts and culture magnets like the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, Mindport, and what will become the Pickford Film Center, as well as the used bookstores along Grand Avenue.

The first improvement will occur along Champion Street, which the city identified as one of the busiest pedestrian areas within the arts district. With blessings from businesses located on the street, the city will remove four parking stalls in front of the Mount Bakery, the Temple Bar, and the Black Drop Coffeehouse and expand the sidewalk from nine to 17 feet wide, as well as install new lighting, trees and landscaping. The city will begin taking bids for this project in August.

Another improvement at the corner of Bay and Holly streets will remove the intersection’s right turn slip and create a public space there to signal a point of entry into the arts district. A right turn will still exist onto Bay Street from the main portion of Holly Street.

The third improvement will create a large public space, bike parking, rain gardens and large sidewalks in front of the new Art and Children’s Museum on the corner of Flora Street and Grand Avenue, Sundin said.

The encore

Wiley would like to see Bellingham’s arts community considered as an economic sector that merits inclusion in long-range planning and support, just like manufacturing, technology and retail, she said. For example, she’d like to see arts and culture organizations included in planning for the waterfront.

McCunn said keeping artist studios affordable is another issue the city will need to address as it shifts in demographics.

“When you look at other cities that went from a manufacturing industry into more intellectual properties, a lot had run-down cores where artists occupied cheap warehouse-type spaces,” she said. Several examples of this, such as the Waterfront Artist Studio Collective and the Blue Horse Gallery, exist in Bellingham’s downtown core. “With other cities’ revitalization, those artists get priced out … that is something the community needs to keep in mind — keeping that space available at affordable rates to retain artists.”


Cultural destinations such as (1) The Mount Baker Theatre, (2) the future Art and Children’s Museum, (3) the Bellingham Public Library, and (4) the Whatcom Museum of History and Art are all draws for local residents and out-of-the-area visitors.


More about the study

The Arts & Economic Prosperity III study was conducted by Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the arts in America. Bellingham was one of 156 communities that participated in the study. Local nonprofit organization Allied Arts originally applied to be included in the study, and the city of Bellingham funded it with $3,500. The Bellingham Arts Commission then took the lead in assisting with the study.

It took into account economic data from 13 local nonprofit arts and culture organizations, including Allied Arts of Whatcom County, Bellingham Festival of Music, Bellingham Independent Music Association, Bellingham Technical College, Bellingham Theatre Guild, Downtown Renaissance Network, Handprint Arts, Mount Baker Theatre, The Boogie Universal Arts Collective, The Jazz Project, Western Washington University Performing Arts Series, Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department and Whatcom Museum.

For more information about the study and the arts commission, visit


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