Arts nonprofit groups draw millions in spending
Northwest Arkansas arts and culture groups draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and pump tens of millions of dollars into the region’s economy, a survey released last week found. Americans for the Arts, a Wa s h - ington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that promotes access to the arts, pegged the economic impact of 23 local artistic nonprofits at $131 million, or almost $300 per resident, in 2015. The spending was about evenly split between the groups’ expenditures and what individuals paid for food, lodgings and so on.
The figure is a tiny slice of the metropolitan area’s multibillion- dollar annual economy, but it also likely undercounts the tangible and intangible impact of the arts as a whole, experts and residents said last week. The report doesn’t include for-profit artists and performances, such as a singer’s concert at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, or dozens of area nonprofit groups who didn’t take part in the survey.
Nonprofit group leaders said the report, above all, shows music, art and history have become an essential piece of the region’s culture and well-being.
“It’s not just an artsy-fartsy thing; it’s something that has economic impact and a real impact on people’s daily lives,” said Robert Ginsburg, director of the Northwest Arkansas Jazz Society, which organizes concerts and other events and participated in the study.
The report is part of a nationwide effort to evaluate the arts’ impact on about 340 cities and regions. Northwest Arkansas’ numbers come from spending data from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Walton Arts Center and about 20 other nonprofit groups, along with surveys of several hundred event attendees.
DOLLARS AND CENTS
Those organizations drew about 1.8 million attendees in 2015, the report found, including almost half a million from outside Benton and Washington counties. Most of the outsiders surveyed said they came specifically for the art or cultural event they were attending.
Dan and Becky Ross, for example, said Thursday they came from southern Missouri for the day to see Crystal Bridges in Bentonville. As they waited for it to open, a staff member mentioned the nearby Museum of Native American History, a study participant that displays arrowheads and spearheads as small as dimes or as big as a hand, as well as ornaments, textiles and other artifacts from people who’ve lived throughout the continent for more than 10,000 years.
“We didn’t even know this was here,” Dan Ross said as the couple walked among the displays, adding he was sure they’d be back in the area soon. Becky Ross said she loved Crystal Bridges’ outdoor trails, calling them good places to hike with children.
Groups the size of Crystal Bridges and the Walton Arts Center likely generate a large part of the report’s findings, given each hosts hundreds of thousands of people a year, employs hundreds of residents and wields annual operating budgets on the magnitude of $20 million, according to spokespeople. The study used a mathematical model to estimate how much of that money is spent and changes hands multiple times within the two-county area.
The study’s participants ranged from those regional heavyweights to groups as small as the Arkansas Country Doctor Museum in Lincoln, run by one staff member and a dozen volunteers in a town of about 2,000. The museum commemorates the family doctors who have set up in small towns across the state since the 1700s. It is housed inside the home and office of three successive Lincoln physicians.
Each year, a few hundred students, former patients and other visitors come to see doctors’ old-time instruments and medicines, including an iron lung and tools used in the Civil War, said Diana Hale, the museum’s office manager.
“We have them from all over the world,” she said, adding people driving through will often stop by and go to a restaurant afterward.
Visitors to Northwest Arkansas’ nonprofit groups each spent an average of $36 per event, the study found. It didn’t count ticket prices, since presumably those dollars would then be spent by the groups, factoring into their part of the equation. Nonresidents were a smaller group than residents but have more to pay for and spent more than $30 million, about the same as residents.
That outside money is a good sign for established groups that want to keep growing, said Mervin Jebaraj, interim director of the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research.
“You want to tap out your local market, but you also want to grow your ability to get revenues,” he said.
The nonprofit arts sector also helps the for-profit side, such as by providing an artist space to display work or perform, Jebaraj added. Downtown Bentonville, for example, runs the First Friday monthly events for artists, performers and other businesses.
The report’s findings almost tripled those of the previous survey in 2010, but Americans for the Arts cautioned against a straight comparison because its techniques and respondents changed in the meantime. Still, the jump coincides with the opening of Crystal Bridges in late 2011.
Arts and cultural groups also bring more intangible benefits, Jebaraj and others said. Northwest Arkansas has exceptionally low unemployment and is home to international companies. A vibrant cultural scene makes it easier to recruit people, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, to fill those companies’ jobs, Jebaraj said.
“We couldn’t do what we do without it — I’ll say it’s that important,” said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit group that aims to help grow the area’s workforce, among its many goals. While not having museums and music of a certain caliber might not be the deal-breaker for a given job candidate, he said, “if it’s absent, it’s glaring.”
Arts groups also point to the inherent value of art and history. Jennifer Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Walton Arts Center, said performances can help the audience relate to other cultures or differences. Ginsburg said music has always been one of the most basic and effective ways for humans to connect with each other. Hale noted the value of seeing how far medicine has come and how much it still achieved centuries ago.
“You don’t know how many people are looking for their heritage,” said Charlotte Buchanan-Yale, director of the Native American museum in Bentonville. The U.S. forced tribes to move through Arkansas on their way to Oklahoma, and some of the museum’s 35,000 or so yearly visitors are their descendants.
“You get another side of American history,” BuchananYale said, adding creative minds sparked by the arts “can move mountains.”
The financial and artistic benefits of Northwest Arkansas’ arts and culture nonprofit groups aren’t evenly spread. Half are clustered in Fayetteville and Bentonville, for example, according to a list of almost 100 organizations that were eligible for the study provided by the Walton Arts Center, which carried out the study’s surveys.
Visitor surveys found they skewed older and more educated, with most having at least a bachelor’s degree and a household income above $60,000.
People of all income levels take advantage of the area’s offerings, but the lower someone’s income, the less likely they are to use even free amenities, a Walton Family Foundation quality-of-life survey found last year. Low-income families might have only one vehicle, for instance, or work multiple jobs.
“Amenities like building a mountain bike trail system — it’s not for people who are struggling to make ends meet,” Kevin Fitzpatrick, a university sociology professor who researches homelessness in the area, said last year.
Then there’s the question of distance: Crystal Bridges, for example, is an hour’s drive from Lincoln with light traffic. Hale said she and her husband want to go there together and haven’t found the time yet because of work on their chicken farm.
On the other hand, many nonprofit groups provide events free of charge or at low cost to thousands of students on field trips. They’re also adding more events and services, often with millions of dollars in charitable and public support.
“We’re really lucky here,” Ginsburg said. The jazz society’s summer concert series with the local NPR affiliate KUAF begins later this month, for example, and the group’s working with Crystal Bridges this fall for an exhibit by a jazz-inspired painter.
The growth is often physical as well. TheatreSquared in Fayetteville is building a new home downtown with the help of $6 million from the city and $12.5 million from the Walton foundation. Rogers City Council, meanwhile, voted last week to provide $2.5 million for an expansion to the city’s historical museum.
“This funding will help build it, and I think it’ll help attract new people to Rogers,” said Alderman Buddy Wright of Rogers’ Ward 1. “I definitely support it.”
The Walton Arts Center and businesses on Dickson Street on Thursday are visible in Fayetteville. Northwest Arkansas’ arts and cultural nonprofit organizations and events drew almost 2 million attendees who spent tens of millions of dollars in 2015, according to a new study from Americans for the Arts that measured the nonprofits’ spending and their attendees’ spending on ancillary expenses likee parking and food.
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The site of the under construction TheatreSquared and part of the entertainment district are visible on West Avenue on Thursday are visible in Fayetteville.
The Walton Arts Center and businesses on Dickson Street on Thursday are visible in Fayetteville.