Arts + Culture = Economics + Happiness

Arts educators are constantly hunting for the latest quantitative research showing how dramatically the arts affect human growth and development – not because they doubt the arts’ qualitative merits, but because let’s face it, numbers can be easier to grasp (especially in the digital age of ever-shrinking attention spans). Sometimes it’s frustrating to need numbers, but sometimes you stumble on a gem: Here’s the latest.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently released three new studies, all of them valuable in understanding how we interact with visual and performing arts both individually and collectively. All three studies are available here. >>

That link contains enough information to make your head swim, but the overarching theme that stands out to me personally is the funnel effect that this data represents, from the impact of arts on the individual to the impact on society.

First (Report 1: When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance), we can examine WHY people crave individual arts engagement: Socializing, learning new things, and experiencing high-quality art were the top three responses. At Urban Gateways, we view broadening children’s perspectives and developing social skills as central benefits of arts education, so it’s good to see those values reflected here. However, 60% of adults with children under 6 years old reported that time was a serious limitation to attending arts performances – not an enormous surprise, given the stresses of child-rearing. Cost is cited as the second most prevalent limitation, at a 38% response rate.

A related and, in my mind, central finding is that adults who attended performances or museums as children are 3-4x more likely to attend as adults (we’ve moved on to Report 2, Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012). By introducing students to the arts, we create life-long arts patrons. As the NEA aptly points out , a stronger nation-wide emphasis on family-friendly, low-cost arts performances, museum exhibits, etc could do several things all at once: Diminish the “time” barrier for parents by allowing them to attend the arts with their kids, diminish the “cost” barrier and open up the arts to parents and children of all backgrounds (how about public transit passes for arts performances?), thereby increasing the chances that those children will continue to patronize the arts as adults…

…Which is also an economic imperative, given the awesome finding that arts + culture contribute more to the economy than previously believed: Over $698 billion in 2012, which was 4.32% of Gross Domestic Product, more than construction or transportation and warehousing. The arts + culture sector also employs about 4.7 million people. (All this from Report 3, The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA)). And let’s throw in an even more radical perspective: If the United States were ever to start measuring Gross National Happiness, as Bhutan does, in addition to GDP, I can only imagine that the results would be even more astronomical!

It seems clear that the arts are, and must continue to be viewed as, a national priority. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities turn 50 this year, and their annual budgets of about $146 million each are far below where those budgets sat in the 1970s and 80s when adjusted for inflation. Programs like Urban Gateways’ arts education programs, which are free to Chicago kids, are funded in part by the NEA. So what’s one thing you can and should do? Tell your representatives and senators in Congress to increase NEA and NEH funding – find them at the links provided.

As NEA chair Jane Chu points out in the video below, 1+1 does not equal 2 in the world of funding; 1+1 might equal more like 7 when you’re able to take additional funding and leverage it with resources and programs that are already in place. The budgeting increase becomes exponential when you translate it to impact.

All this means more arts access, more arts patrons, better economics, and, I’m willing to bet, an increase in Gross National Happiness.