The Arts Mean Business: CBCA Study Shows Big Economic Impact

The Colorado Business Committee on the Arts 2016 report showed a sizable creative economy on the upswing in Denver. The numbers are impressive, but they don't tell the whole story.
What's the value of culture?

That's a question that arts advocates must constantly answer in a society where the arts are often viewed as ancillary to basic needs. Every year, foundations, bloggers and the NEA publish oceans of data in an attempt to quantify and expand what most of us know intrinsically: Arts and culture make life better, they humanize and connect us, they increase our empathy and understanding, yes. But they also boost the economy in big, meaningful ways.

Culture is definitely a boom industry in Denver, representing $1.8 billion in economic activity in 2015. That's according to the latest Economic Activity Study from the Colorado Business Committee on the Arts (CBCA), which has published these reports every two years since 1992.

For the wonky, here's some of the juiciest data in the report:
  • Nearly 11,000 people in Denver work in arts and culture, as actors, writers, ushers, set designers, fundraisers, etc., up five percent from 2013. And, maybe most encouragingly, payroll for arts-related employment increased by nearly 10 percent, which means talented, creative people are being paid more -- and are thus more likely to remain talented and creative in Denver, rather than moving on to more lucrative markets.                                                                                                                                                                                     
  • Nearly 14 million people participated in a cultural activity in 2015: That's about as many people as live in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, combined. Many of those people came from outside of Denver: Cultural tourism accounts for $365 million in total economic impact on metro Denver. More than beer, more than the Broncos, visitors to Denver check out Museo de las Americas and the Clyfford Still Museum; they visit the tiny primates at the Denver Zoo; they go to performances at Wonderbound; and they spend money along the way.                                                                                                                                                                           
  • More people are seeing more performances for less money: As organizations responded to calls to make arts experiences more accessible by offering more free programming, free attendance went up by three percent. That's part of why Denver's rate of arts participation is higher than the national average, at 4.5 experiences per person. Kids in school average nearly eight arts experiences each year, fueling a pipeline for future artists and audiences.                                                                                                                                           
  • Meanwhile, paid attendance dropped by nine percent. What does this suggest? The interest is there, the audience responds, people show up when the prices is right (especially when the prices is zero). Ticket sales aren't going to keep the lights on: Arts and culture organizations must continue to build new revenue streams, like corporate sponsorships, which are up 10 percent since 2013. Data like that found in the CBCA report will continue to fuel that upward trend, as industry sees more and more evidence that the arts are a legitimate factor in Denver's boom, including as a magnet for newcomers.
The bigger picture

The CBCA report is built on data from 264 organizations that are eligible for funding through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), which contributed more than $53 million to cultural organizations across the seven-county metro area in 2015. And through CBCA and SCFD are not formally aligned, the report comes as voters consider the reauthorization of SCFD, via ballot measure 4B. Good timing.
The SCFD funds such large, performance-based organizations as the Colorado Symphony.
Still, the SCFD data don't present a complete picture of the economic impact of cultural activity in Denver. SCFD funds organizations with a strong public presence and missions that are largely performance-based, including the Colorado Symphony, Su Teatro and Playground Ensemble. Organizations that measure impact to a large degree by the number of heads it can count in a given year.

But there are many arts-and-culture organizations that don't fit this criteria, including those that use the arts as a tool of education, and thus don't show up in the data, even though they employ artists. Because most schools don't show up, neither does the salary of the drama teacher at George Washington High School, for example. Neither do the gallery sales of commercial artists, or the sales of books by local authors at Tattered Cover.

And neither do for-profit businesses: Anschutz Entertainment Group, which books hundreds of concerts per year, including most of the Red Rocks calendar, is definitely a for-profit enterprise in the arts and culture realm, but its contribution isn't counted in the CBCA study.

That's all good news because it means the impact is even bigger than the CBCA suggests. Possibly much bigger.

For now, Denver, these are pretty sexy numbers. Let's keep that up.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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