Hal Zina Bennett: Putting a Dollar Value On The Arts

Blue Lakes, Lake County (7/02)

Last month  there was an article in the San Diego Union Tribune spelling out the contribution made by the arts in America. Unlike other polemics arguing the moral, aesthetic and spiritual values of these activities, the author, Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts (AFA) looked at the strictly economic contribution of the arts. Here are some of his findings:

Nonprofit arts groups, including museums, theater companies, performing arts centers, orchestras, dance companies, arts councils and other, generate $134 billion in economic activity nationally every year.

The above groups employ nearly 5 million full-time employees. This is a larger percentage of the U.S. workforce than is represented by doctors, lawyers, or accountants.

The arts generate $89.4 billion in household income in the U.S.

And how about taxes? The nonprofit arts industry overall generates $24.4 billion to local state and federal government revenues! (Meanwhile, government spends only $3 billion in support of the arts each year. Not a bad return for the money!

These statistics are for the “non-profit arts industry.” They do not take writing and publishing into account, except in the areas of writing for theater, writing copy for all of the information and promotion of the above, etc. I couldn’t even venture a guess what the publishing industry, to which we writers are all wed, might represent as an economic force in our country. I would guess that it would be considerably more than the above.

All of this made me pause and reflect on those old warnings from our parents that there is no future in a creative career.

I made a quick tally of my own retail book sales over my lifetime. It came out to $6.5 million. Hmm, a modest number when compared to a bestseller like Stephen King who sells probably that much in a year. But I am a modest mid-list author, of which there are at least a quarter of a million in the U.S. Even so, we are talking about real money here.

Then I started thinking about all the books I’ve worked on for other authors — doctoring, rewriting, coaching, and sometimes ghosting. I lost count at 200 published books, not all of which have been bestsellers, of course. But some of the books I’ve worked on for other authors or publishers have become New York Times bestsellers. Just those books alone, at last tally, represented over $120 million in retail sales.

My own example is not exactly representative of writers in the U.S., since I both write my own books and do freelance work for publishers and other authors. Even so, think of a one-book mid-list author whose book is moderately successful. If the book is in hardcover, you are talking about half-a-million in retail sales. That’s a lot of money to be moving around our economy. We writers have a pretty good cottage industry going here. Maybe it’s worth sticking with this writing stuff!

The bottom line—excuse me if I begin to sound like a bean-counter here—is that publishing and the arts together represent a major economic force in this country. A very very major force!

I say, if you are a writer, musician, poet, actor, painter, illustrator, whatever your choice, and are contemplating committing more of your time and energy to your creative efforts, take all of the above into account. Many creative people think of themselves as living outside the mainstream, and certainly don’t think of themselves as big contributors to the economy. But it’s quite to the contrary. Collectively we form a huge cornerstone in the economic foundation of our country.

There’s much more to writing and the arts than dollar value, of course. And I’m not even looking at that here. Still, in a country where spending power is too often the measure of our worth, we’d do well to remind ourselves of the above. Most of us may not be motivated by money, but taking pride in the economic force that we are a part of can help us stand up to those pesky inner critics who tell us we should not quit our day jobs or that we should be looking for real work.

I say that anything we can muster up to put our inner critics in their place is certainly a worthwhile venture. Meanwhile, you’ve now got some good ammunition for addressing the outer critics as well.

One Comment

Michael Laybourn May 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Thanks Hal and Dave for bringing this to our attention. Those working on a local economy need to realize that the arts are extremely important and should be recognized as such. It is easy to see that local food can be one of the main economic drivers of a local economy, along with local control over energy and investing in and buying from small, local businesses: Money spent at a locally owned business stays in the local economy and continues to strengthen the economic base of the community.
This county has a large percentage of artists of all kinds, and, as Hal has shown, contribute a lot more economically than most think. Schools need to rearrange their thinking about the importance of art in the schools. Art is an economic force, and not only that, lives are enriched with the arts.