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Arts and culture nonprofits pump $100M into Washtenaw County economy

President Obama presents a National Medal of Arts award to U-M Emeritus Professor George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to perform leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Ralph Alswang, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts.

At first glance, art and data don’t seem like a match made in heaven.

Enjoyment of the arts and culture sector is by nature a subjective experience, but the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation wanted to put a number on how the nonprofits were affecting the economy.

“This was our first taste of thinking of the nonprofit arts and culture sector as a need we have to fund,” AAACF director Neel Hajra said. “It’s an economic engine for this county.”

According to a study completed with Americans For The Arts and the help of the Ann Arbor Arts Alliance, the nonprofit arts and culture sector has a nearly $100 million impact on Washtenaw County’s economy.

That number was first released in May at the foundation’s annual meeting and AAACF board member Kevin Thompson said the reaction from donors and community members was wide-ranging.

“Some people saw it as a validation that this is a sector that’s worth investing in,” he said. “While other people said ‘wow, everything is great, our job is done here.’ ”

The focus on the economic impact of the sector has led to a crucial shift in fundraising semantics from donation to investment as the foundation continues to work with philanthropists on funding artistic enterprises in the area.

“The day you tell me we have too many jobs in Washtenaw County is the day I’ll tell you we should not put any more money into the nonprofit arts and culture sector,” Hajra said.

“Community repair is critical and most of our funds go to human services and those types of issues. This [arts and culture] is a different form of philanthropy that’s saying let’s build the community as a whole.”

About half of the $100 million comes from direct expenditures made by the arts and culture nonprofits — including the salaries of more than 2,500 full-time equivalent employees — and the other half is calculated by looking at how much people spending when they attend arts and culture events in the region.

The cost of admission to events was not included in the survey, because that money is then spent by the arts and culture organizations, so if it were included it would likely be counted twice.

According to the research, Washtenaw County residents make up slightly more than two-thirds of the 1.78 million annual attendees at arts and culture events in the region. Those local residents spend an average of $20.58 per event on auxiliary costs such as food, parking and secondary shopping.

“The beauty of this data is it’s showing that you’re having an economic impact just by engaging, just by going to arts and culture events,” Hajra said. “You don’t think of yourself as helping drive the economy when you go to a symphony, but that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

Out-of-town guests make up the remaining 32 percent of attendees and spend approximately $44 per event, many of them shelling out for a night in a local hotel as part of their visit.

Comparatively, a recent study completed by the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau, showed that, after subtracting ticket costs, football games have a $40 million impact on the county’s economy every year. Unlike arts and culture attendance, nearly 90 percent of people who go to games in the Big House come from outside the county.

The numbers coming out of the study are no surprise to Ann Arbor Arts Alliance, Deb Polich said.

“Creativity, arts and culture and this whole sector, it doesn’t just happen by magic,” Polich said. “It takes work, it takes investment and it takes sound decision making to make this sector thrive.”

The Arts Alliance helped perform the study with the AAACF, and Polich said she hopes the results will reinforce the message that continued investment in the arts is needed to make the Ann Arbor area thrive.

Major institutions like The Ann Arbor Art Fairs, The Ann Arbor Summer Festival, University Musical Society and Elvis Festival in Ypsilanti bring people to the county, but they need more support, Polich said.

“As much as we can celebrate the outstanding organizations in Washtenaw County — and there are outstanding artists, businesses and nonprofits in the creative sector — across the board, all of them are under-resourced,” she said.

For Hajra, producing numbers that show the strength of the sector has been a double-edged sword in attracting donors to continue giving.

“It’s one of the paradoxes facing this sector,” Hajra said.

“You hear donors say there are too many nonprofits and why aren’t they better at what they do. But then on the other hand they see a really strong nonprofit and say it’s doing so well, why do they need my money.”

Ann Arbor Art Center director Marie Klopf feels right at home sharing the study’s findings with her patrons.

“I’m an engineer by trade and spent most of my career in operations for a for-profit company,” she said. “So now we’re right there trying to make the connection between real dollars and cents and the value of arts and culture. Where else can you find a better win-win-win?”

Hajra, Klopf, Thompson and Polich all said they hope the numbers will help spur investment in the arts and culture sector from private companies and foundations looking to make Washtenaw County a more livable place.

“This wasn’t just done to get a number” Thompson said.

“It was to build a model of what to support if you want to do economic development. Emotion applies to a lot of decision-making when it comes to the arts and culture, we’re giving people an additional layer of solid data to use when they decide to make an investment in this county’s future.”

Ben Freed is a general assignments reporter for The Ann Arbor News. Email him at and follow him on twitter at @BFreedinA2. He also answers the phone at 734-623-2528.