For some people connected to the art world, its financial impact can be seen firsthand.
Yet for others, calculable evidence of the benefits arts and culture bring to the local economy can be difficult to pinpoint.
“It’s been an ongoing thing for the arts to not be able to quantify their significance,” said Kelly Hart, the executive director for Allied Arts of Whatcom County, a nonprofit that works to sustain community arts and culture.
This past summer, Americans for the Arts conducted its fourth Arts and Economic Prosperity Study, which looks at the economic activity and jobs that are generated by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in communities around the country.
In Bellingham and Whatcom County, the study found the nonprofit arts sector supported 520 jobs in 2010 and brought more than $14 million in economic activity to the region, including spending in restaurants, retail stores and hotels.
It was the second time the area has been involved in the study, which is conducted every four years.
Nationwide, the 182 communities that were included generated $135.2 billion in economic activity and $22.3 billion in government revenue in 2010, while supporting 4.1 million jobs.
One takeaway from the study, Hart said, was evidence that arts and culture not only benefit the community’s quality of life, but they also have strong economic upsides.
Hart said the numbers are a big help when writing grant proposals for art programs.
Economic activity also shows that even if municipal and county budgets are strapped, arts should not be the first thing on the chopping block, Hart said.
Shannon Taysi, an official with the city’s Planning and Community Development Department, said she thought the economic numbers from 2010 were encouraging signs for Bellingham’s nonprofit arts sector. She said she was particularly happy to see its employment level increased slightly from the last time the study was completed in 2008, a sign the sector had made it through the recession relatively unscathed.
Yet even with notes of success, Bellingham and Whatcom County lagged behind other regions in the study with similar population sizes.
Eugene, Ore., Tacoma, Wash., and Boise, Idaho, were three other Pacific Northwest cities included in the same population category as Whatcom County—a group that included locations with between 100,000 and 249,999 residents.
All boasted more than three times the number of nonprofit arts and culture jobs, and all had more than three times the amount of economic impact. Tacoma’s economic activity topped out at more than $64 million.
Kelly Hart said she thought Whatcom’s numbers could be boosted with a renewed focus on “cultural tourism,” defined in the study as tourism directed specifically toward experiencing arts, heritage and the “special character” of a particular location.
By increasing marketing power and working with the local tourism board, she was hopeful the region could attract more visitors.
“One of the most common things I hear is that we have amazing arts and culture here, but nobody knows about it,” Hart said.
Shannon Taysi said she thought stronger economic impact could be driven by a more cohesive arts and culture sector.
But finding productive ways for nonprofit groups to work together while many operate on limited resources would be challenging, she said.
“I think that people are still operating in silos a little bit,” Taysi said. “It would be nice if we could figure out a way to consolidate.”
Alexandra Wiley, chair of the Bellingham Arts Commisson, also said cohesion could bring major benefits.
Collaborative marketing would be a good place to start, Wiley said.
Rather than attract visitors for single events or activities, cohesive efforts might entice tourists to spend more time in the county and experience a wider variety of entertainment and recreational offerings, Wiley said.
“Our rock and roll scene is amazing,” Wiley said. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate into [economic opportunities for] galleries.”
Contact Evan Marczynski at email@example.com or call 360-647-8805.
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