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The Arts: By The (National) Numbers

A few years ago, when the National Endowment for the Arts said it would join with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to determine how much the arts contributed to the economy, I applauded. When the very first data was released, I even tried to sell an article to about the beginning of this worthwhile effort. The editor I pitched passed, saying that we should wait until the data was more meaningful and more revealing.

How right he was. I still welcome the NEA’s initiative, but the release of a report today shows that this task will be harder than we perhaps thought. What we have now is not, to my eyes, very revealing about museums, operas, jazz venues, etc. The data are too encompassing.

Look at the headline numbers, quoted from the NEA release:

In 2013, arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy, a 32.5 percent increase since 1998, and 4.23 percent of total GDP…. more than some other sectors, such as construction ($619B) and utilities ($270B).

The annual growth rate for arts and culture as a whole (1.8 percent) was on par with that of the total U.S. economy (1.9 percent). But it grew faster than other sectors such as accommodation and food services (1.4 percent), retail trade (1.3 percent), and transportation and warehousing (1.1 percent).

Another key finding is that consumer spending on the performing arts grew 10 percent annually over the 15-year period.

The production of performing arts services has grown at a faster clip than arts and cultural production in general, contributing $44.5 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013.

In 2013, arts and cultural sector employed 4.7 million wage and salary workers, earning $339 billion. Industries employing the largest number of ACPSA workers include government (including school-based arts education), retail trade, broadcasting, motion picture industries, and publishing.

The industry with the fastest growth in arts and culture production between 1998 and 2013 was “other information services,” a category that includes online publishing, broadcasting, and streaming services (12.3 percent). Other fast-growing industries were sound recording (9.5 percent), arts-related computer systems design (including services for films and sound recordings) (7.7 percent), and regular broadcasting (5 percent).

You can see already one of the key problems. The numbers do not separate profit-making arts businesses from non-profit cultural institutions. Therefore, in that wonderful $44.5 billion contributed to the economy by performing arts services, what is (non-profit) opera? What is jazz? Are they shrinking while performances of “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” and “Menopause; The Musical” toured to more cities?

That consumer spending number also asks more questions than it answers: does it mean that more people went to performing arts productions, that prices were raised faster than other consumer spending, or both? Or something different?

Also, what would happen to these aggregate numbers if you subtract the motion picture business, television, “craft arts” (meaning production of jewelry, china, silverware and custom architectural woodwork), fashion, manufacture of musical instruments, etc.?  They are all part of these accounts. The definitions are overly broad. (Witness this chart.)


The employment numbers include tattoo artists, TV broadcasters, newspaper photographers, business agents and camera repairmen as well as fine artists of all disciplines, btw.

I won’t go on. I’m glad the NEA/BEA are trying this, but for now it’s not much use to what RCA readers would consider the arts unless it continues to be refined. And I would ward off any use of the cultural sector being bigger than the construction sector without a definition in terms–to cite one example. The cultural sector, after all, gains nothing if its facts are not credible.

Chart Courtesy of the NEA


  1. Thank you, Judith. This is very useful information and a good analysis of the data.

  2. Frank Cadenhead says

    You are absolutely right. In France, the Ministry of Culture and Communications oversees a broad variety of “arts” including motion picture and television production (don’t think I ever saw tattoos). They do, however, make a serious effort to categorize “performing arts” in detail. Nothing like that here.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful post about the NEA/BEA endeavor. As director of the NEA’s research office, I wish to clarify a few points.

    This research alliance, involving the nation’s public agency of record on economic data, has yielded an enormous harvest for other researchers, policy-makers, and cultural providers. So, to make the results easier to follow, we’ve posted several “issue briefs” that analyze key findings from the account, alongside an infographic, fact sheet, and other resources—all in addition to detailed statistical tables from the account and press releases from both our agencies.

    We knew that the non-profit arts field would be especially interested in economic data about tax-exempt organizations. Accordingly, Issue Brief #5, Trends related to independent artists and performing arts industries (1998-2013), includes economic data for tax-exempt theaters, symphony orchestras and chamber groups, promoters, opera companies, dance companies, and other music groups and artists. To compute those estimates, we used a supplemental data source, the U.S. Economic Census. In a previous Issue Brief, we had outlined the same procedure for for-profit versus nonprofit museums.

    Your question about the implications of the growth in consumer spending on the performing arts is harder to answer. Here’s what we know: in aggregate, people are spending a greater share of discretionary income on performing arts events. We also know that the total number of consumer dollars spent on the performing arts has grown from 1998 to 2013)—even after adjusting for inflation. By contrast, data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA)—a household survey of adults’ art-going patterns—reveals that the share of U.S. adults who have attended various performing arts events has declined over a comparable period.

    There are many differences in measurement here, and reconciling the estimates is problematic, yet we remain hopeful that enterprising researchers will use the NEA/BEA data to arrive at their own conclusions and to make recommendations, as warranted, for arts practitioners.

    You raised another crucial question: how to disaggregate the data about the types of artistic goods and services that your readers ostensibly care about? In addition to topline information about various arts and cultural industries, we also provide downloadable tables with detailed breakouts on “core” and “supporting” arts-and-cultural industries—a distinction also made in the NEA Guide to the U.S. Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account. You can download the Excel spreadsheet labeled “2015 ACPSA Tables” to find specific industry data relevant to your interest, everything from performing arts companies to museums, to graphic design services, independent artists, fine arts education, and much more.

    While it’s true that several of the “supporting” arts industries make up a disproportionate share of GDP produced by arts and cultural industries as a whole—and that they also rank among the fastest-growing industries in the account—please note that such industries are often not included in the account in toto. Rather, the BEA has focused solely on artistic, creative, or cultural output wherever possible, to prevent over-reporting.

    I agree with your thought that patience is required in learning to use the account—but I further believe that the time-series data (from 1998 to 2013) give ample tools for constructing meaning.

    Sunil Iyengar
    Director of Research & Analysis
    National Endowment for the Arts

  4. For me the value of studies like this is not so much what is revealed in any given year as being “the current state of …” (insert “employment,” “economic activity,” “tax revenues,” “the arts,” etc..), but rather what has changed since the last time this study was done.

    Follow up analysis should focus on these changes, leading to questions like how is the face of American culture, particularly in the nonprofit arts sector, is shifting in one direction or another? Does this data provide indicators that will help us understand the health of opera, classical music, museum attendance over time?

    There will always be questions about methodology, inclusion, and modeling. But if research is consistent, changes from year to year will reveal themselves, and only then will we be able to have a meaningful conversation about cause and effect, values, and policy.

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