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Lobbyist Says the Arts An Economic Driver For Cities

In the battle for economic growth, cities are competing to attract workers, businesses, and development. One lobbyist says the arts are an underutilized tool to boost a cities image -- and it's bottom line. 
Randy Cohen is vice president of the policy group Americans for The Arts. He tells Alison Holm the old conventional wisdom dismisses the arts as an extra -- when they should be considered essential: 

Cohen: We all love and appreciate the arts. They inspire us, they delight us they entertain us, and they really help create the communities that we want to live in. But the fact is, arts organizations are businesses. And that's something that's just not intutitve, we don't think about it. But we just did a big national study, and Greater Columbus was one of 182 study regions from across the country, we're in all 50 states... and it showed, even right here: arts, culture -- a vibrant *industry*. $226 million of economic activity that supports over 85-hundred jobs in the Greater Columbus area.

Holm: Tell me about some of the ways that you found -- specifically in Columbus -- that arts improve the economy and build the community.

Cohen: Arts organizations alone spend $131 million a year. And that's money spent locally on... employing people, purchasing goods and services in the community, arts organizations work with the chamber of commerce and tourism -- so they're good business citizens.

But that spending leverages a lot of event related spending by their audiences. So, think of the last time you went to a show. Well, maybe you paid for parking, and had dinner, and went out for dessert or drinks afterwards. If you have little ones at home, you doubled the cost of the evening on babysitting -- lots of economic activity related to that arts event. We surveyed 11-hundred people, where we asked them 'how much did you spend related to this arts event that you're attending'. And what we found is that the typical arts attendee in the Greater Columbus area spends $16.23 per person per event, not including the cost of admission.

But we also wanted to find out did they live in Franklin County, are they local, or are they from outside the county, are they nonlocal. 32% of the attendees come from outside the county. that's 5.9 million attendees by the way, in 2010. And they spend a lot more money, they average $24 per person per event beyond the cost of admission. Just more on parking, more on meals, a little on lodging.

But one of the interesting things we asked those folks was, 'are you here visiting family, are you here on business' -- 74% said 'we came specifically for this arts event'. When we invest in the arts we're not investing in dome frill, we're investing in an industry. And that's drawing people to the community, and those people are spending money. Lots of money; in fact over $90 million when you add all that up.

Holm: did this study make a distinction, did this study differentiate between the impact of a large festival or a large onetime event versus, ongoing... say a theater company or a concert venue?

Cohen: You know we think of those big blockbuster events, and absolutely they drive the numbers. But when you look at travellers these days it's a really interesting phenomenon, the research shows travellers are looking authentic cultural experiences when they travel. And so even those smaller organizations, you know, those neighborhood arts organizations, or those culturally or ethnically diverse organizations, that's a real draw as well. So, a community with a healthy, vibrant arts community has all of that.

Holm: How much does that drive the ongoing economic development in a community, having an identification as an arts mecca?

Cohen: Well, I think it's very valuable these days. Especially when you look at community development and the new work force. Workers in the new economy -- they're picking the communities they want to live in, they're moving there and figure well, then I'll find work. And, this again is a global phenomenon, culturally vibrant communities are what our best and brightest educated workers are looking for. So that is a big draw. And if that's where the workers are -- who follows? -- well, the businesses. So, 'creative' 'artistic' is a really valuable brand these days in economic development.

Holm: So in some ways, that's as much of an asset for attracting future business as having good transportation, having a skilled work force.

Cohen: It's right up there, absolutely. I mean you want all of it; you want great culture, people want sports, they want great quality of life, they want great schools for their kids.... But in the past, I think the arts and culture has been more of an afterthought. And it's become pretty clear to community, business and elected leaders that... well, this is a real draw.

Randy Cohen is the vice president of the policy group Americans for the Arts, and is speaking this afternoon at the Columbus Metropolitan club. The results of the groups 182 city survey on the economic impact of the arts is available at their website: www.americansforthearts.org.




A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.