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Arts and culture are worth saving

Olive Wilson, 2, took in the William Forsythe exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2018.Craig F. Walker

For those of us lucky enough to be safely on the sidelines, the COVID-19 crisis has been largely about numbers — awful, mind-bending, panic-inducing numbers. New cases, total cases, total hospitalized, total dead. There are other terrible metrics — 22 million Americans newly unemployed, stock markets seesawing back from a 30 percent plummet, consumer spending (which drives 70 percent of the US economy) down almost 9 percent, food bank demand up 50 percent. The numbers are bad, and likely to get worse.

But let’s talk about some other numbers that haven’t commanded the same attention. Specifically, the $150 million set aside for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to distribute to cultural organizations across the entire country in the recent $2.4 trillion rescue package passed by Congress.


The number — laughably small, not even enough to keep tens of thousands of laid off workers in health care for a month — reflects the American government’s blind spot when it comes to culture. Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador for President Trump and now one of his chief surrogates, tweeted those numbers shortly after the bill was passed, outraged the numbers were, in fact, as large as they were. “How many more people could have been helped with this money?” she wrote.

But Haley and those like her are asking the wrong question. Ask instead how much damage could be done by not throwing a rope to cultural institutions. And for that, there are numbers, too. Plenty of them. For starters, the more than $800 billion arts and culture contributed to the US economy, according to a Bureau of Economic Analysis study released last March. Or the more than 5 million people employed in the sector, who collectively earn nearly $400 billion annually. Or the fact that arts and culture’s annual economic contribution to the country outweighs construction ($745.5 billion) and transportation and warehousing ($577.4 billion). It’s one of the heavyweights of the new economy, growing larger as the old one dwindles. The arts economy is more than double that of mining, agriculture, forestry, and fishing combined.


MFA Community Initiative artist Sneha Shrestha viewed a Claude Monet painting with students from the Chelsea Boys and Girls Club in 2019.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

That’s why a group of Massachusetts cultural institutions should be seen as modest in the plea they made to the federal government this week for $6 billion in immediate relief to nonprofits like museums and aquariums. These places have seen their earned revenue vaporize, overnight. Nationally, there are hundreds, if not thousands, just like them.

We should all share their worry. Richard Florida, a leading scholar in urban economies whose research on the “creative class” was first celebrated and then pilloried as gentrification-apologist neo-liberalism, nonetheless makes compelling, clear-minded points about the economic engine of the arts. His recent research, based on exhaustive data analysis, led him to a clear conclusion: That culture is one of “three key sectors, with science and technology and business management, that drive regional economic development.”

People like Haley ignore something so obvious that I have to assume something far more malevolent than ignorance: Culture is a tremendous economic driver, particularly in this era of a dwindling manufacturing sector. In that same Bureau of Economic Analysis study, the arts accounted for more than 4 percent of GDP. Or almost one-twentieth, if you prefer. Another way to put it: A lot.


These are facts we have known for a long time in New England, blessed as we are with a dizzying array of cultural riches. People visit Boston for the history preserved and enlivened by its institutions, for the city’s wealth of art and music, but just as much for its vibrant, urbane neighborhoods and streets. One relies on the other: A reason to come is a reason to eat, shop, mingle, or stay. It’s a complex ecosystem, often driven by culture.

Look at the Institute of Contemporary Art, just a decade ago a lone island in a sea of parking lots, now surrounded by sparkly new offices and condominiums and an array of event-style restaurants and retail. I’m not saying the ICA created this new neighborhood by itself; but to imagine for a moment that a world-class cultural amenity wasn’t a significant catalyst is willful ignorance.

A work by Jenny Holzer was projected on the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2010.

Again, let’s look at the numbers. According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s 2020 report to the Legislature — a sing-for-your-supper case for preserving often-precarious government funding — the state’s nonprofit cultural organizations alone contributed $2.3 billion to the state economy last year. They also account for 71,000 full-time-equivalent jobs each year. A vicious irony of the moment is that, just months after presenting that rosy picture to lawmakers, the council this week made public some new numbers: That 700 nonprofit arts organizations in the state had together lost more than a quarter-billion dollars since the coronavirus shutdown began. Over the same span,15,000 workers lost hours or had jobs evaporate. And that’s in a single month.


Arts and culture are typically seen as an urban pursuit, but they’ve also catalyzed economic recovery outside major centers. Look, for example, at Berkshire County, where a hollowed-out industrial landscape left little reason for hope 25 years ago. State and private investment there capitalized on the region’s legacy cultural resources, like the Tanglewood campus, building new ones and driving economic renewal. It worked: Until the coronavirus shuttered every door, the visitor economy drove the region’s fortunes, both in sheer dollars and in attracting new investment across an array of sectors. It’s little wonder that legislators from the Berkshires were the ones to write a bill last week calling for emergency funding for the state’s cultural nonprofits, and fast. This is a broad-based appeal: They’re not trying to save art institutions so much as ensure the economy can survive this nightmare.

But there can be little question that Greater Boston is the heart of the state’s cultural economy. Those numbers, if even possible, are just as frightening: According to a 2019 report from ArtsBoston, culture pumped $1.3 billion directly into the area’s economy. Spinoff spending — on hotels, food, drink, and parking (of course) — generated another $675 million. Here’s another number: All told, 21 million people go to the theater, visit a museum, or buy a ticket for a concert in the Greater Boston area over the typical year — four times as many as those attending every single home game of Boston’s four major sports teams.


In a different era that’s looking terrifyingly more and more familiar, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt built into his Depression-era New Deal significant money for culture. It was meant to create jobs, but more so to lift spirits. It eventually also lifted American global stature, not to mention its economy. Seeding culture in those critical pre-war years enabled the sector to roar to life immediately afterward, erupting into the first bona fide, homegrown artistic phenomenon in Abstract Expressionism, around which New York’s Museum of Modern Art — one of the cornerstones of that city’s multi-billion dollar cultural economy — was built.

We’ve talked about numbers. Let’s talk about costs. Schoolkids who study the arts have higher GPAs, lower dropout rates, and score better in language and math, according to a study cited by the Mass Cultural Council. And recently, though it was always obvious in my own life, doctors have started prescribing museum visits as a way to manage ailments ranging from anxiety to eating disorders to chronic pain.

We don’t look at culture in terms of numbers. It’s time we started. If we don’t, the number we could come dangerously close to is zero. And that’s a price none of us can afford.

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.