The Role of the Arts in Economic Development

As it pertains to funding for local arts projects, the past few years have not been too kind to the arts community. Budget cuts, austerity measures and changing priorities have meant less funding, and with it less jobs for artists and fewer arts opportunities and events for communities all across the country. As the economy starts to grow (slowly) and optimism about future growth increases, state and local budgets are facing smaller budget deficits and the increasing likelihood of budget surpluses in future years. With these new resources comes the decision over how to spend resources in the best possible way to stimulate growth.

In recent years, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other groups have given out millions of dollars in grants to local arts groups to help foster economic growth and assist arts communities in struggling areas of the country. As the money available to these groups continues to grow, and cities and states pondering the decision to invest again in the arts, the question is: what role do the arts play in economic development, and how vital is it to future growth?

I have written before about the tough budget constraints that governments are dealing with at the local level and the pressure this is putting on existing arts programs. Unlike the federal government, cities, counties and states are often required to balance their budgets on an annual basis; if sales tax receipts or other forms of revenue are down from the year before, as has often been the case during this economic downturn, governments have to turn to existing programs for cuts or outright abolition. With tax increases politically unfeasible, it’s often the most vulnerable programs that face the chopping block, and this includes the arts community.

Those of us who study public policy and urban planning are cognizant of the effect the arts can have on a city or neighborhood. As much as art enriches our lives and provides a sense of culture, the economic impact is minimal; this is not to take away from the arts community, but is rather meant to illustrate the larger forces that are required for long term economic growth, like housing, higher education, health care and free trade.

The Next American City recently looked at an example of a rust belt city facing tough economic times, Detroit, and how the arts community is helping bring the city back. Through the help of groups like the NEA and ArtPlace America, Wayne State University launched the Detroit FAB Lab, a hub that provides artists with access to equipment and tools for their artwork, like metalworking and woodworking, as well as mentoring services like business coaching and networking. In essence, it provides a community for artists to come together and share their work, their advice and their love for the arts, all with the backing of community grants and support.

Few cities are in need of support like this more than Detroit. Designed to help support the struggling manufacturing base in the Motor City, the grants provide a small step in the overall push to diversify and grow Detroit’s economy as it starts to come back from the recession that took such a toll on the city’s population and well being.

The millions of dollars in funding that are being given out by groups like NEA and ArtPlace also present a series of questions: is this money well spent? If the goal of the money is to spur economic development and growth, is it better spent elsewhere?

We can all agree that funding the arts is crucial to fostering community and culture in cities all across the country. But is absolutely crucial to long term economic growth? That’s where it gets tricky: the list of public policy measures that rank above the arts community is quite long. If given the choice between an artistic redevelopment project and a new hospital or transit station, the physical and transportation needs of the city will win out.

But, as cities and municipalities invest in infrastructure, public services and needed resources, it’s always important to remember how the arts can add to the benefits being accrued. A city with no culture, no life, and no sense of vitality is vulnerable to losing out on the same kind of economic benefits that were desired when public officials decided how to spend resources in the first place. Investing in roads, schools and infrastructure is absolutely essential to an area’s long term economic growth; however, without a vibrant and committed arts scene, the desire of residents and tourists to experience the best of what the area has to offer will be diminished.

There are numerous examples of cities and local governments taking the time to invest in areas of their community and developing art districts. In my home town of Phoenix, the burgeoning Roosevelt Row district is home to First Friday art walk events and galleries showcasing the vibrant culture alive in the city. Other districts in Miami, Pittsburgh, and New York have also popped up in recent years to add vibrancy to formerly struggling areas of their respective cities.

As a policy priority, you will get no argument from me that the arts community ranks behind the essential public services that so many people rely upon on a daily basis. However, good public policy recognizes that the right balance, which involves providing those services and setting aside funding for arts programs that encourage innovation and creativity, along with providing a sense of culture for a given community, is preferable.

As ArtPlace America states, “art creates vibrancy and increases economic opportunity. It is all about the local.” We could not agree more.