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Putting a dollar value on art, at last

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It is easy to think of art as a luxury. It enriches our minds and lives, and it allows us to express ourselves to the fullest, yet it is not essential to brute survival. We value it, but beyond all measure. Art is priceless.

Perhaps these are reasons that assessments of economic activity often simply overlook the art world.

Consider, though, a few cold calculations: Americans spend about $14.5 billion a year on the performing arts alone — everything from opera, dance and symphony concerts to circuses, magic acts and Las Vegas shows — a 2011 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found.

And according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a branch of the Commerce Department, in 2009, the performing arts, together with museums and sports activities (the bureau has traditionally grouped these into one sector), contributed $70.9 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product. In that same year, the motion-picture and sound-recording industries added $59.8 billion, and publishing contributed $147.7 billion.

In other words, art does have a dollar value — it’s just one that analysts haven’t fully added up. So it is welcome news that the bureau will now measure the creative sector’s specific effects on the macroeconomy. Thanks to a new partnership with the National Endowment, bureau researchers will make hard measurements of how much artistic and cultural activities contribute to GDP.

Drawing from all good sources of data, governmental and private, BEA researchers will assess the number of people working in the performing arts, at museums, in book publishing, at architectural firms — every nook of the creative world. They will dig into the details on how much each part of the art world is growing or contracting, and how they all contribute to the economies of individual states.

For instance, a preliminary study has found that performing arts contribute more value to states with large and diverse economies than to smaller states. In California, Colorado, Georgia, Texas and New Jersey, every additional dollar generated by the performing-arts industry adds $1.25 or more to gross state product. In Wyoming and South Dakota, in contrast, each dollar contributes only about 86 cents. That’s because in the less-populated states, many things need to be imported from elsewhere — lighting, sound equipment, scenery, curtains — for the show to go on.

Even if the effect is greater in more populous places, artistic efforts consistently stimulate the local economy. This lends some evidence to the discussion about whether innovation and new ideas can contribute to economic growth at least as much as the investment of additional capital does. Such debates will be enriched by the new and better data to come.

No doubt economists and scholars of all kinds will find many other ways to puzzle over the numbers as they come in. It’s safe to assume that, in general, the hard data will demonstrate that art is a bigger economic player than we thought.

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