To Reap Rewards from Arts Economic Data, Take the Long View

By Sunil Iyengar, Research & Analysis Director


Did you know that Louisiana is a national leader—behind only California and New York—of movie/film production? Or that North Dakota is the site of much cultural-facility construction? These are some of the most recent findings from an initiative launched five years ago by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) to track the annual economic value of arts and cultural production.

Soon after creating the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (as the initiative is known), both agencies realized that the long-term gains from this research investment would rival any immediate ones. Five years on, the account is still yielding insights that the NEA and BEA and others are promoting through research papers, data visualizations, maps, and statistical tables. On March 6, for the first time, these partners will release state-level data to complement the national numbers.

For each recent year on record, the total economic value from the production of arts and cultural goods and services has represented more than 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP)—$763.6 billion in 2015, the latest year for which data are available. This figure is known as “value added.” Each year, the arts’ value added to the U.S. economy is greater than that of massive industries such as construction, transportation and warehousing, and agriculture, to name a few.

Arts and cultural production routinely accounts for half the value added by copyright-intensive industries as a whole, attesting to the arts’ pride of place in the nation’s creative economy, as well as their direct role in spurring innovation. (Copyright-intensive industries are designated as such by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.) And, unlike the case for most sectors, the arts is running a trade surplus: in 2015, nearly $20 billion more in arts and cultural goods and services were exported than imported.

These stats remain impressive, but now that the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account has been kicking around a while, we are better equipped to look at long-term trends. The account includes data tables, going back to 1998. Analysis of these patterns can help the arts sector—and policy-makers, researchers, and others—to elevate matters affecting the fiscal health of specific arts industries or the overall economy, to defend what’s working, to diagnose potential problems, and to propose evidence-based solutions.

That trade surplus I mentioned a moment ago? Arts and cultural trend data show it as steadily widening since 2006, buoyed by exports of American movies, TV programs, creative advertising, jewelry and silverware, and video games.

As for the total value added by arts and culture, the average annual growth rate was 2.6 percent from 2012 to 2015, compared with a 2.4 percent growth rate for the total U.S. economy. Drivers of that growth include web streaming, web broadcasting, and web publishing services (averaging + 21.0 percent annually over the three-year period); performing arts presenters (+ 9.5 percent annually); and specialized design and architectural services (+6.0 percent annually).

Such trend data are not limited to national-level figures. On March 6, the NEA and BEA will publish data showing the value added by arts and culture to the gross state product (GSP) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. (Last year, the NEA and BEA released state-level arts employment and compensation figures.) As for trend lines, Washington State, Utah, Nevada, Louisiana, and Virginia are the top-five states with the fastest-growing arts economies.

Not all the trend data are upbeat. Nationally, industries manufacturing jewelry, silverware, and cameras (including movie camera equipment) have seen declines in their share of value added to the economy. And the economic value represented by provision of arts education services—largely by government—has continued on a downward slope. But here again, policy-makers and industry groups may see opportunities to take corrective action.

On March 6, you and they can explore the account through web resources created by the NEA—specifically the handiwork of research analyst Bonnie Nichols—by the BEA, and by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. It takes time, but time is a friend when it comes to building sturdy economic narratives about the arts.