Pictures of Horses Sure Generate a Lot of Revenue!

A couple weeks ago, the Jack Donaghy character on the show “30 Rock” responded to someone saying “What is Art?” with the phrase “We know what art is! It’s paintings of horses!” Which is funny to me – as a former theater major – for a number of reasons (not the least of which being a story involving Neil Hellegers and Cary Mazer and Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of theater, which none of you would find interesting). But I was surprised to see the same quote in a very entertaining profile of some huckster painter in Saudi Arabia in the NYT Magazine (“The galleries here are still rejecting me,” Gharem said. “They think art is still pictures of horses, you know.”).

What does all of this have to do with regional economic development? Well, we’ve actually got a lot of horse-painting art organizations in this region, and it turns out that they have quite the economic impact.

Of course, when I say “art”, I should say “arts & culture & scientific” to include zoos, aquariums, science centers and the like. And when I say “quite the economic impact”, I should say $1.9 billion!

The Puget Sound area’s arts, cultural and scientific organizations generated $1.9 billion in business activity in 2009, according to a study released Friday by ArtsFund. The nearly 360 organizations in the study supported some 32,520 jobs and $882 million in labor income, according to the economic-impact study prepared by University of Washington Professor William Beyers. The study also includes data from some 3,000 patrons.

Of course, these numbers aren’t a total surprise. Prosperity Partnership has been talking about the importance and impact of cultural activities in our region since the beginning, which is why we developed the Cultural Access Fund proposal to ensure that more folks can take advantage of these assets. But I did appreciate this section that I hadn’t seen before on “new money”:

The majority of the economic impacts of arts, cultural, and scientific organizations and their patrons are related to local residents spending part of their discretionary income on visits to these local organizations. However, a significant proportion of the patrons to these organizations come from outside the local area, and their spending represents “new money,” funds that would not be spent in the local area if the organizations that are the subject of this study were not located here….New money accounts for about 17% of the revenue of arts, cultural, and scientific organizations, while 44% of patron spending is new money. New money economic impacts in 2009 created 8,273 jobs, $573 million in business activity (sales), $247 million in labor income, and $43 million in tax revenues.

You see this new money vs. transfer of same money argument a lot in the economic analyses of whether it’s worthwhile to publicly fund sports stadiums, with many economists saying that – if a sports team moves to another town to punish a state for not building it a new building – the money that would be spent on, say, basketball, just goes to more people spending money on baseball (or soccer) or the movies. So, it’s very interesting to see that we’re not just measuring money that would have gone to buy another video game or upgrade to the more expensive Xfinity package.

For what it’s worth though, as impressive as those economic impact numbers might be, that’s probably not the main reason why Prosperity Partnership cares about supporting cultural activities. At least to me, it’s much more about ensuring that this region has a high quality of life and diverse, vibrant cultural opportunities as a way to attract and retain high quality employers and employees. Plus the educational and inspirational benefits of these activities that supplement (and increasingly replace) the opportunities in the public education system. But hey, the extra revenue doesn’t hurt either!

By the way, the full study can be viewed here.

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