How should society determine its priorities? Should government invest only in services that yield a quantifiable, measurable benefit? Or, should government also recognize the importance of things that, while gratifying to the soul, are not as clearly utilitarian? For decades, the arts have been lumped in with the second category. Museums, theaters, galleries, and other non-profit arts centers, while appreciated for providing enlightening pastimes, are rarely thought of as bastions of critical economic activity. The stereotype is particularly exacerbated by the job prospects facing those with arts degrees. Empirical consensus suggests that in the modern economy, STEM degrees are generally more valuable, and arts degrees are a riskier investment for college students. Per Georgetown University, “unemployment rates are generally higher in non-technical majors, such as the Arts (11.1 percent), Humanities and Liberal Arts (9.4 percent), Social Science (8.9 percent), and Law and Public Policy (8.1 percent).”
Yet, it would be a mistake to conflate the disappointing employment numbers associated with arts degrees with the economic value of the arts as a whole. The Trump administration is currently among those making this mistake. In its proposed budget, the Trump administration made devastating cuts to government-sponsored arts programs, presumably because they aren’t worth the investment. While the House Appropriations Committee has since rejected such cuts, the attempt made by the Trump administration reflects a general disdain for the arts—and a belief that they simply don’t pull their weight.
In reality, the Trump administration could not be more incorrect; the arts industry contributes far more to the economy than most people, including Mr. Trump, realize. A national study published by Americans for the Arts (the data for which was verified by several independent university groups) found that the nonprofit arts industry produces $166.3 billion in economic activity every year. Of the revenue produced, $63.8 billion is produced by the industry itself through tickets, concession sales, and merchandise. However, the rest of the revenue—a whopping $102.5 billion—is produced through event-related expenditures. Folks who go to the theater don’t generally only go to the theater; they buy dinner, go shopping around town, and purchase nice clothes and gifts before the night even begins. In short, the arts are unique in their ability to produce expensive date nights.
Arts events give people reason to spend a night out on the town enjoying the outdoors and, more importantly to the utilitarian, investing in the local economy through their consumerism. On average, an attendee spends $31.47 per event beyond the cost of admission. That number jumps to $47.57 per event for attendees coming from outside of the theater’s county, a group that comprises roughly 34% of all attendees. So, not only do arts events bring locals to the theater, but they bring outside business to the county—consumers that ordinarily would have no reason to bring their business outside of their local economies. The Trump administration may argue that other economic sectors produce more jobs, yet the study also found that the $166.3 billion produced by the nonprofit arts industry manifests into supporting 4.6 million jobs, which are highly resistant to outsourcing. So, while STEM investment helps bolster rapid economic growth, arts funding uniquely supports local communities, and in particular builds longer-lasting lines of investment into smaller businesses.
It is worth noting that so far, these numbers have only been referencing nonprofit arts industries. However, with the inclusion of commercial and for-profit arts industries, the revenue generated by the industry is $730 billion. This amounts to 4.2% of the United States’ GDP—a larger share of the economy than transportation, tourism, agriculture, and construction. As the agencies the Trump administration wishes to cut—the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—assist both commercial and nonprofit arts institutions, the proposed cuts would put a damper on the entire three-quarters of a trillion dollar industry. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the combined budgets of the NEA and the NEH do not exceed $300 million, meaning that the tremendous economic value produced by the arts comes at a very low cost to the federal government.
In addition to the slew of economic benefits produced by the arts industry, exposure to the arts has a less-measurable but equally important effect on the quality of life of US citizens. The California Arts Council, a committee created by the state government of California, boasts that students involved in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, have a higher attendance rate, have a lower dropout rate, and are twice as likely to graduate from college. Similarly, arts programs in correctional facilities reduce recidivism rates, help prevent at-risk youth from turning into career criminals, and promote a safer prison environment by directing inmate energy into something positive. In sum, the arts provide a fulfilling and entertaining outlet for students and inmates, making them more productive members of society in the long run.
The listed effects of the arts so far have all been tangible, measured benefits that could convince even the most cynical corporate boardrooms of the worthiness of arts funding. But the reality is that the utilitarian argument should be the last thing to discuss when addressing the arts. American society—just like any society—is not entirely utilitarian. We don’t all spend all our time with noses to the grindstone; we value time spent with loved ones, pursuing activities we find fulfilling, and expressing ourselves in ways that help us forget the grind of everyday life. We find this aspect of our lives, where our problems can be temporarily put on hold, to be the principally distinguishing factor between simply surviving and actually living.
The utilitarian might quibble over the relative value of arts funding as opposed to other government investment, but the value of the intangible should not be lost on us. The arts facilitate living. They provide a new, exciting, and dynamic window into ourselves and our experiences, and give us the power to become more in-tune with our emotions, ambitions, and fears. These effects may be intangible—perhaps even nonsensical to the scientifically minded. But that doesn’t make them any less real, or any less valuable to the individuals that experience them. If government, and society at large, is truly formed to perpetuate the wellbeing of all people, funding the arts is simply a no-brainer. That said, the money doesn’t hurt.
Featured Image Source: M. Kathleen Thomas.