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news artHow much does a locally funded arts study tell us about Santa Cruz?

The arts aren’t just good for the mind and the soul, says Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C. They’re also good for local economies in places like Santa Cruz.

“When we invest in the arts, we aren’t investing in some frill or some ‘more gruel please’ industry,” Cohen explains. “We’re investing in businesses that support jobs and generate government revenue.”

A new study of the county’s arts community reveals that the arts scene brings $38 million in economic activity to Santa Cruz County, and provides 877 full-time-equivalent jobs.

“Arts organizations are good business citizens, so we tried to capture that, because it’s a myth-buster,” Cohen says.

The local installment of the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV report, which was funded partly by the city and the county and partly by local arts and cultural organizations, makes a strong pitch for investing in the arts in its opening.

“When we support the arts, we not only enhance our quality of life, but we also invest in Santa Cruz County’s economic well-being,” it reads—rhetoric similar to the national version of the same report, and also to other versions of the report for communities around the nation.

Advocacy group Americans for the Arts, which drafted the report, has a goal of breaking the stigmas that arts are solely a cultural amenity, by documenting the range of economic activity arts organizations generate, and often argues that “the arts mean business.”
Santa Cruz County Arts Council provided half the funding—$16,000—for the study, which Americans for the Arts conducted with help from economists. The city, county and Community Foundation each pitched in $5,000, while the County Visitors Council contributed $1,000.

The findings paint an intriguing, if not altogether clear, picture of Santa Cruz’s arts scene, and tracks arts organizations’ role in the Santa Cruz economy with ample data on arts-related economic activity and jobs. Yet despite proudly enlisting the help of economists from Georgia Tech, it contains no information about the cost of arts funding in the county, almost like a catalogue with no prices. Nor does it compare the arts with other industries to provide the necessary context. From a purely economic standpoint, the study fails to provide enough specifics to gauge arts funding’s return on investment.

While Arts Council executive director Michelle Williams could not provide concrete numbers, she did give an estimate.
“We know the arts nonprofit sector drives $38.4 million. We also know that our program grants about $200,000 a year, and we know that that is a significant part of the seed money that drives that $38.4 million,” says Williams. “I don’t know what the math is on that, but it’s pretty powerful.”

Cohen admits that whatever the economic returns, they will never be the primary reason people appreciate the arts.

“The best investment might be waste management or something, you know, but who wants to house everybody’s trash as a way to boost the economy? ‘Now with landfills bigger than ever! Come visit!’” he says, with a laugh.

Santa Cruz County was one of 182 communities chosen for the study. The previous study, done in 2005, found that the county’s arts community accounted for $32 million in spending—about the same as the current figures when adjusted for inflation.

The positive message of the report was not at all news to county economic development coordinator Barbara Mason, but she finds the data valuable. “We already knew the arts had a significant impact on the economy here, and it’s apparent to anyone who lives here or who has visited here,” Mason says. “But to have it quantified is great.”

The researchers used questionnaires from nonprofit arts organizations and surveyed art event audiences to establish four categories of the arts’ economic impact: amount of full-time equivalent jobs produced, personal income to residents generated, and both local and state government revenue generated.

One interesting tidbit from the report that isn’t further explored is a graph showing how Santa Cruz compares in arts spending to other communities studied. The county is more or less in step with other communities of its size, and possibly a little behind. More interesting still is how arts community members’ incomes compare with those from other places: Artists from Santa Cruz appear to be in a much lower income bracket, with a median household income of $22,300—about a third of the average for communities of a similar size. That figure is also one-third of the median income in the county, according to 2012 census data.

Cohen says further research is needed to critically examine art’s role in the economy.

"This kind of research isn’t the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning of the conversation,” he says. “You can sit down and say ‘OK, what are these numbers telling us and what do we still need to know?’”

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