Economic Impact Ain’t Everything

Drew McManus cautions a little today against putting a lot of stock in studies about the economic impact of the arts.

I had been thinking along the same lines because so many people were crowing last week about studies showing arts and culture had a $500 billion impact on the economy.

The problem is, between 1998-2008 the impact of arts and culture on current dollar GDP was between 3.5% and 3.7% of the economy. According to a piece from Pacific Standard, arts and culture has been hanging around at 3.2% of the economy since 2009. When you are talking 500 billion, each tenth of a percentage there represents tens of billions of dollars so a .3%-.5% difference adds up quite a bit of lost impact. (Though the report was measuring where things stood in 2011 we are talking about a 2 year “hang.”)

From some of the responses I was reading, it seemed like people thought this was the first time the economic impact of arts and culture had been measured. It does appear that the criteria and methods are more refined than in the past, so the number may be more accurate. But as Drew suggests, people have been attempting to measure economic impact of arts and culture for quite some time now.

And remember, often economic measurements aren’t always your friend and acknowledging their validity can be a two edged sword if someone else can claim bring equal or better results.

A recent opinion blog on the NY Times reminded me that when it comes to economic impact and earnings potential for arts and culture positions, it is important to note that the figures are a result of specific decisions being made:

Is the crisis rather one of harsh economic reality? Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.

But this data does not show that business majors earn more because they majored in business. Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs. College professors, for example, often know that they could have made far more if they had gone to law school or gotten an M.B.A., but are willing to accept significantly lower pay to teach a subject they love.

Economic impact of arts activity could potentially be greater if more people choose to charge more (or it could be lower because it wouldn’t be as widespread.) Arts and Culture salaries could be higher if people held out for more money (but again, there might be fewer people employed in those areas.) Choices have been made in an attempt to provide more widespread access and because people have been motivated by considerations other than money.

(And by the way, salaries start to even out around mid-career. Note that liberal arts is tied with medical technology, theatre with health care administration, history with business administration, and philosophy is WAY above both of them.)

People may tell you that back in the old days, people stuck with a job no matter how awful it was instead of pursuing what interested them. That may be true to a degree, but this weekend my mother told me that when my grandfather was working in the garage at a car dealership about 4-5 miles from their house, he was unhappy and bounced back and forth between parts manager and service manager and would curse up a storm every night.

Then he got a job at West Point Military Academy in shipping/receiving in the early 60s, and even though it was 40 miles away which required him to get up earlier every day, she never heard him curse after that point.

Not only do I know that my grandfather couldn’t be the only one who did this, I have heard interviews recently with people who lived in towns with good manufacturing bases who talked about how easy it was to quit a job in the morning and have a new one by the afternoon.

People may characterize following your bliss and studying a topic that interests you as an irresponsible and effete decision, but it isn’t unrelated to decisions people have made in the past. There may have been a good many people who stayed in a soul crushing job all their lives, but that may have been more of a choice than a necessity.

This by no means ignores that there are other forces conspiring to place college educated people in low paying jobs. There is more involved in finding employment than choosing a field of study and embracing the realities of jobs in that field.

But the choice to accept a job at low pay also contributes to the job being low paying. Sometimes it is because there are few alternatives but to accept those jobs. Sometimes it is because the applicants concede the organization has important uses for that money.

Salaries and economic impact are not the sole measure of value of people and their labor. Good thing too because we probably all have more value as soylent green.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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