There’s a hopeful attitude among nonprofit arts organizations that the spectrum of visual and performing arts brings not only cultural but economic advantages to a community. That’s a primary reason, also hopeful, that public and corporate sponsors and donors are willing to contribute to local arts organizations. It’s all part of the optimism of the arts, the belief that the economic good that accrues spreads out through a city like waves on a pond.
It turns out that these assumptions are true.
A nationwide study called Arts and Economic Prosperity “V,” conducted by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit group headquartered in Washington, D.C., concluded, in a report released at the end of August, that nationwide, nonprofit arts patrons spent $102.5 billion during 2015. And not just on tickets, but on parking, pre-event dining and shopping, babysitting, and other activities with a direct connection to their attendance at arts events. In 2015, this spending supported 2.3 million jobs across America, provided $46.6 billion in household income, and generated $15.7 billion in total government revenue.
For Shelby County, also for 2015, nonprofit arts and culture collectively propelled $197.3 million in spending. That figure is equivalent to 6,138 full-time jobs and generated $22.4 million in revenue for local and state governments. Altogether, arts and culture in Shelby County amount to the area’s second largest attraction, the first being the Beale Street Historic District.
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 the Volunteer State.
“The biggest way this study helps our efforts,” says Elizabeth Rouse, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis, “is that it puts actual numbers on paper with real value propositions. If we look at the nonprofit sector, the study reveals that more than 6,000 equivalent full-time jobs are arts-supported. If the nonprofit sector were like a private organization headquartered in Memphis, we would be the city’s second largest employer. The creative economy is part of the city’s DNA and part of its history.”
Rouse has been with ArtsMemphis since 2006, serving first as chief development officer, then, in 2013 and 2014, as chief operating officer, and since 2015 as president and CEO. The organization, founded by volunteer community leaders in 1963 as the Memphis Arts Council, raises funds to support local arts and culture groups. In fiscal year 2017, ArtsMemphis awarded grants to 72 arts organizations and eight individual artists. In the past decade, the group invested more than $40 million into local arts and culture. Ninety-six percent of its revenue derives from individuals, corporations and foundations in Shelby County.
“The reason we chose to participate in this study,” Rouse says, “is that every day we’re trying to strengthen the arts groups we’re involved with and their relationship to the local population, mainly through private philanthropy. This report and these quantifiable numbers show that the return investment is well worth the effort.”
ArtsMemphis does more than simply invest donor dollars in its roster of arts and culture beneficiaries.
“We really work with these groups throughout the year,” says Rouse. “We help groups that are thinking about forming their own business plans, and we encourage organizations to create efficiencies in structure and proper staffing. We encourage them to have diverse revenue sources and to consider what their justification is, why they exist and to what purpose.” ArtsMemphis will also hold workshops to help organizations understand and use the data provided by the study.
While ArtsMemphis tries to fulfill its goal of being a central resource for arts organizations, providing noncritical and nonrestrictive grants, Rouse and her staff understand the dilemmas in choosing what groups receive aid.
“It’s very difficult to make decisions,” she says. “There are so many organizations doing important work, but our resources, while generous, are finite.”
ArtsMemphis awards grants to major and readily recognizable entities like Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Ballet Memphis, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Pink Palace Family of Museums, Memphis Symphony Orchestra, UrbanArt Commission, and others, but also to much smaller groups such as Collage Dance Collective, Elmwood Cemetery, Latino Memphis, Literacy Mid-South, Voices of the South, and a host of grassroots organizations.
Milton Lovell, chief financial officer and general counsel for nexAir, the 77-year-old, local, family-owned distributor of medical and industrial gases, said that the company had followed the report closely and understands the importance and influence of arts and culture in job creation.
“Supporting the arts,” he says, “is an investment in the community. A diverse range of cultural offerings appealing to many segments of the community means that we can attract talent to Memphis and keep it here.” Besides that, he says, “the arts really do inspire people, whether they have training or not.”
nexAir supports not only major nonprofit arts organizations like The Orpheum, Germantown Performing Arts Center, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and ArtsMemphis, but “we like to support individual artists as well. Memphis is very fortunate in the number and quality of its artists. We have built a strong collection of regional artists that’s displayed throughout our offices and we think really benefits our employees.”
The restaurant industry is a reasonable gauge of the immediate economic effects of arts and culture events and occasions. For example, Deni Carr Reilly, owner with husband Patrick Reilly of The Majestic, cites attendance at the Orpheum and other Downtown venues as an economic boost, especially during the weeks when the historic theater hosts traveling versions of Broadway shows.
“We love the Orpheum,” she says. “In fact, we tie a lot of our marketing plans around the Orpheum’s schedule and other arts groups Downtown. There’s definitely an uptick in business. We do a pre-theater menu before every show. Some people who are Orpheum members call us and book reservations months in advance for every show they’re going to.”
The Reillys opened their restaurant in 2006, in a 1915 building with a glazed terra cotta facade built for the Majestic theater and later home to Blue Light Studio, where generations of Memphians had their senior pictures made. Fortuitously located on South Main, the restaurant is a two-minute walk from the Orpheum.
“But we also get customers from FedExForum and the Cannon Center,” Reilly says. “When you think of what people spend for an evening out, babysitters in some cases, gas for the car and parking or Uber fees, cocktails, dinner, maybe a nightcap after a show or concert, the economic impact is significant.”