Power of Art

Study shows arts make dollars and sense

By Don Wade

From the nationwide study “Arts and Economic Prosperity V” came overwhelming evidence that the arts make a financial impact. But of all the data accumulated in a yearlong collection effort launched by Americans for the Arts, one number leaped out at Elizabeth Rouse, who is president and CEO of ArtsMemphis: in 2015 in Shelby County, the arts supported 6,138 jobs (full-time equivalent).

“We’re the second-largest employer in Shelby County,” Rouse said. “We have a strong case with these numbers. It brings us all together as a sector.”

The power of the numbers is not lost on city leaders. Not when total nonprofit arts industry spending for 2015 was $197.3 million, $160.8 million of household income was created, and $22.4 million in government revenue was generated.

“The arts represent a key part of our city’s identity,” said Mayor Jim Strickland, citing everything from award-winning film festivals to museums and on-stage presentations. “The AEP5 results prove that all these things are major drivers for the local economy.”

The annual three-day RiverArts Festival held Downtown typically draws more than 20,000 attendees. (ArtsMemphis)

The AEP5 study’s aim was to quantify the economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture. The Tennessee Arts Commission provided statewide oversight for the study, and ArtsMemphis served as the Commission’s primary partner in West Tennessee. Overall, the project involved 14,439 arts organizations across the country, including more than 600 in Tennessee.

At the state level, total nonprofit arts industry spending in 2015 was $1.2 billion. Nationally, The AEP5 study findings indicate that the nonprofit arts industry generates $27.5 billion in government revenue; that represents a 550% return on nationwide public investment in the arts, which totaled just $5 billion in 2015.

Each year the Blues Foundation puts on two major events that make a significant economic impact. The International Blues Challenge is held in January on Beale Street, with the finals at the Orpheum Theatre. In 2017, it generated $3.5 million in direct spending, $1.77 million in new income, and created the equivalent of 44 new full-time jobs in Memphis. Additionally, 95 percent of the event’s attendees came from outside the city.

And that can mean everywhere from Fayette County to Chicago to London or points beyond.

“International guests often will have three or four weeks of vacation, so, they’ll stay here longer,” said Barbara Newman, president and CEO of The Blues Foundation. “They will visit other arts organizations in Memphis and they’ll expand into North Mississippi and the Delta.”

The annual Blue Music Awards (BMAs) held each May at the Cook Convention Center generated $2.3 million in direct spending in 2016 (the last year for which data is available) and 90 percent of attendees arrive at least one day before the BMAs and stay an average of 3.6 days, with 50 percent staying to visit other area attractions.

Octavia Young is founder of Midtown Crossing Grill, which she opened in 2014, and is located behind Crosstown Arts. The restaurant serves as host for a number of arts-related activities that attract customers, including a jazz brunch and art exhibitions.

“People are passionate here,” Young said. “Crosstown Arts, it was long overdue. As a business owner, I would hope this would become a better community for the arts.”

Midtown Crossing Grill, which opened in 2014 behind Crosstown Arts, serves as host for a number of arts-related activities that attract customers, including a jazz brunch and art exhibitions. (ArtsMemphis)

In 2015, Young partnered with Crosstown Arts and Church Health on a community mural project to paint the side of the restaurant. To be sure, the Memphis arts community is becoming more visible all the time and while the economic impact is an attention-getter, it does not mean that arts organizations can relax in the ongoing effort to secure financial support.

“From the ArtsMemphis perspective, our hope is people will see that investment is making a measurable impact,” said Will Murray, the organization’s development director, “and there will be incentive to give.”

In fact, when Rouse looks at recent revitalization efforts around town and the role the arts have played – everywhere from Overton Square to South Main to Broad Avenue to Crosstown Concourse – she believes the impact of arts in Memphis is a tangible economic story with many chapters to come.

“Individuals and employers in the business community might not always realize how powerful this sector is,” Rouse said. “I can’t wait to see to those numbers in five years.”