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Are the arts a luxury or an economic necessity?

Melanie Goulish

The Next Idea

Most of us have a sense that the arts contribute to a community’s economic well-being. Measuring that feeling in real economic terms, however, is quite difficult.

We know that arts and culture enhance where we live, but when it comes to determining where to invest money for our state’s future, it’s not clear how the arts really add up.

Are the arts a luxury or an economic necessity?

Are rich and rigorous arts activities really as important as having smooth roads, safe neighborhoods, and access to high-quality healthcare and education?

To try to answer these questions, the Ann Arbor Art Centerhas partnered with the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and University of Michigan researchers to break down the economic impact of the city’s latest art festival, a 10-day event called POP-X

Happening right now in downtown Ann Arbor, POP-X has invited artists – from internationally renowned painters to local high school students – to transform eight small pavilions into art installations.

As thousands flock to Ann Arbor to check out the artists' creations, the researchers will attempt to identify the most useful economic indicators to measure an arts festival. The team will be looking for stories and trends in the data, which will be collected from a wide variety of places – from social media impressions and parking tallies to cell phone usage and restaurant numbers.

Once POP-X ends, the art center will pair the team's findings with results from a visitor survey in order to find out which aspects of the festival were both popular and had an economic impact. This data will show where future opportunities might exist to deepen and broaden how the arts can affect the community.

Once we gather this data, we want to share it with others. The community foundation is creating a so-called “impact calculator,” a mathematical tool that will allow local leaders across the state to estimate the economic potential of various arts events in their communities. 

We know the arts can do much more than just make us feel good about our state. They have a real and measurable impact on local development. By finding new ways to measure that impact, more of us will begin to see art more as the priority it should be and less like the luxury it is not. 

Marie Klopf is president/CEO of the Ann Arbor Art Center. Neel Hajra is president/CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. 

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