What’s $504 Billion to the Arts?

Picture $500,000,000,000. In singles.

Brother, can you spare $504 billion?

Picture $500,000,000,000. In singles.
Picture $504,000,000,000. In singles.

According to the World Bank, the U.S. gross domestic product during 2011 was $15,533,800,000,000. (it is now over $16 trillion.) By our rough calculations — and our rough understanding of what the GDP is, and our rough sense that economic statistics are notoriously vulnerable to objection, speculation, revision and revulsion — $504 billion would have been 3.2% of the 2011 U.S. economy. Maybe this seems a lot to you, maybe it seems a little. But we can only imagine what 3.2% of the U.S. economy translates into in terms of full-time and full-time equivalent jobs. We can’t imagine anyone remaining unmoved or unconcerned if, by some magic wave of a wand, $504 billion were to be suddenly vaporized out of the economy. Indeed, if you were to discover that the sector of the U.S. economy in which you work — in which your personal and financial well-being was staked — was something like a half-trillion dollars, that sounds like an impressive number, like something you would want to know. You wouldn’t have to assume it was a perfect number. You wouldn’t have to assume that the impossibly complex methodologies and calculations that led to that number are debated by macroeconomists who speak in a vernacular working folk don’t understand. Hey Joe, I work in a $504-billon-dollar industry.

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You would only have to know that there is this number, roughly calculated, that represents what your sector means to the American economic picture. And if you thought about it, you would want those who advocate and lobby for and stand up for all that is good and positive about your sector to promote that $504 billion figure. If you thought a little further, you might even imagine many situations in which that $504 billion figure could be a useful tool, be it in a legislative chamber or a media outlet or that dinner party. (And no, probably not at your tailgate.) Even though your one job seems infinitesimal compared to that number, it still includes your job. And the real home you own or rent, and the real spending power you have, and the critical value you just doing your job really has. You might concede that other people know more about this stuff than you do, but wouldn’t want the number buried under the rug, hidden away somewhere. You wouldn’t want to scoff at it, right?

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Wrong. In the world of arts and culture, it’s more than merely unfashionable to view fiscal-impact studies, as they relate to arts and culture, as valuable. It has been in vogue for a few years now to look upon them with something between scorn and a frothing, mocking hostility. Some people say that if our society cannot prize arts and culture for its “inherent value,” then numbers are numbers, math is math — and most of the math is suspect, anyway. Last month, Anthony Radich, who has served as Executive Director of the Western States Arts Federation, or WESTAF, since 1996, a regional nonprofit arts service organization, celebrated National Buzzkill Day with this:

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The field of arts economic impact studies is populated by charlatans, experts, and the ignorant. …we have a situation with arts economic impact studies where the misleading and the ignorant have the floor in our field, and the truth tellers are largely unheard.

So it is in this Debbie Downer context that a Dec. 5 press release from the National Endowment for the Arts got our attention. It announced preliminary estimates from the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, the “first federal effort to provide in-depth analysis of the arts and cultural sector’s contributions to current-dollar gross domestic product (GDP).”

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According to these new estimates, 3.2 percent — or $504 billion — of current-dollar GDP in 2011 was attributable to arts and culture. In comparison, [the] estimated value of the U.S. travel and tourism industry was 2.8 percent of GDP.

interesting, right? Clearly the NEA isn’t buying into the scorn, sniff and froth game:

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“Art and culture is a significant part of the U.S. economy. Not just its contributions of ideas and creativity to the innovation economy, but also as an important part of the labor force and our country’s GDP,” said NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa. “The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account is an unprecedented resource for detailed, reliable data on the economic value associated with arts and cultural activity.”

Only Ian David Moss has noticed what little excitement these findings have generated in the cultural sector. (He offers a theory to explain it.) But given the sector’s emotional tepidity, it’s curious that many major news outlets — including The Hollywood Reporter, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Faux News — are reporting on it nevertheless, even if it’s just an artful regurgitation of the NEA’s press release. (Faux, long against public arts funding, no doubt likes the phrase “creative economy” because it tests better with their radical-right-wing demographic than the more squishy and lefty-sounding “arts and culture.”)

We continue to maintain that dismissing the persuasive political and social value of fiscal-impact studies is short-sighted. We don’t object to the idea that one must not embrace and quote in blind faith. But we argue that there are differences between two similar but different feelings: “reluctance” and “caution.” Reluctance is a feeling that discourages; it forecasts a negative outcome. Caution, however, doesn’t necessarily assume a negative outcome. It puts the brakes on reckless, unwise, indiscriminate and misleading action — it’s a vote for prudence.

All we know is someone, for some reason, through some research, concluded that cultural (or creative) sector delivered a $504 billion in some kind of value during 2011. Maybe that’s worth knowing. Maybe that’s worth completely ignoring.

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One last note. Buried in the NEA’s announcement is a theoretical shocker: of all the various categories that were considered in terms of economic output, arts education was ranked second:

Advertising (creative content only) output held the largest share with an output of $200 billion, or 20 percent of all arts and cultural commodities. The second largest share was arts education (including post-secondary fine arts schools, fine arts and performing arts departments, and academic performing arts centers) with an ACP output of $104 billion. Cable television production and distribution with $100 billion in output and “motion picture and video goods and services” with $83 billion in output had the third and fourth largest shares.

Even the comatose know we have a problem in this country terms of a holistic, well-coordinated, results-oriented, purposeful system of arts education. The cited statistic bears some additional investigation.