"Merry Wives of Windsor"

In this file photo, Alex Oliver and Cadence Lamb are shown during rehearsal for the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Lamb will play the role of Mistress Page while Oliver plays the role of Falstaff.

Flagstaff Shakespeare Company, Courtesy

We are all for the arts.

In a community like Flagstaff, they attract and sustain a “creative” class of artists, patrons and volunteers that studies have shown enhance social cohesion, encourage entrepreneurship, support a healthy urban core and combat prejudice. One study even found that communities with a healthy arts sector recycle at higher rates, are better at conflict resolution and have longer life expectancy.

So what’s not to like?

How about economic impact studies that overpromote the financial benefits of artistic events and activities to the exclusion of the values mentioned above. As one wag has noted, Mozart and Picasso are valued for the genius of their music and art, not for their contributions to the financial well-being of Salzburg, Austria, or the Guggenheim Museum.

CREATIVE ACCOUNTING

Last week, local arts advocates rolled out the latest economic impact study that claimed the arts sector in Flagstaff generated $90 million in economic activity and supported 3,000 jobs. That’s pretty impressive, were it not for the creative accounting that went into those figures.

To back up, the arts and entertainment industry in America is actually a huge economic player, employing more than 1 percent of all workers, from movies and professional sports to dinner theater and local book festivals. And in some cities that attract hordes of tourists to cultural events and institutions like museums and aquariums, it is a major economic player. Tourism, after all is the world’s No. 1 export industry (that is, attracting outside spending and investment in a locally produced good or service), ahead of even oil and automobiles.

Take the Grand Canyon. Most of its nearly 6 million visitors a year are not from around here, meaning they bring dollars into the community from elsewhere. The latest study puts visitor spending at $584 million, which supports an estimated 8,900 jobs.

Then there is higher education. Northern Arizona University enrolls 22,000 students in Flagstaff, most of whom are not from Coconino County. Their tuition and spending, combined with state appropriations and federal grants, produce $1.16 billion in spending in the county and support 13,600 local jobs. For those keeping track, that’s one in five jobs in a county that has 67,400 workers.

STRETCHING CREDULITY

So how realistic is it that the arts in Flagstaff, with only $90 million in spending, would support 3,000 jobs? That’s 33 jobs for every $1 million, vs. 12 jobs per million dollars for NAU and 16 jobs per $1 million for the Grand Canyon. What’s the likelihood that Theatrikos, the Arboretum or the Flagstaff Symphony have job generation rates more than twice as high as two of the highest-impact export industries: higher education and national parks?

We’d say a very slim chance indeed, mainly because the study commits what’s known in the impact study trade as a ”spending diversion error.” It doesn’t account for all of the locals buying tickets and memberships with income that would simply be diverted to other local spending were the arts in Flagstaff not here.

How do we know this? It’s right in the study. Out of $90 million, $51 million is attributed to the budgets of the local arts and cultural organizations in the study. Much of those budgets are underwritten by tickets and memberships, and, according to the study, 72 percent of those are purchased by local residents. Further, when locals were asked whether they would have gone out of town for a similar event if it wasn’t offered locally, 91 percent said no.

In other words, the majority of the discretionary entertainment spending attributed to locals in the study -- an estimated $55 million -- would likely have been spent right here in Flagstaff on other goods and services – and generated a similar amount in taxes. To promote a figure of 33 jobs per $1 million of arts spending vs. just 12 by NAU or 16 by the Grand Canyon strains credulity and invites ridicule at a time when the arts can use all the friends they can get.

FOCUS ON CULTURAL IMPACT

Don’t get us wrong – we wish our local arts groups all the good fortune they and their supporters can muster. And as for those 28 percent of ticket buyers who are from out of town and inject new money into the economy, we salute your support of our local arts.

The bottom line is that arts and culture play a much more dynamic role in Flagstaff than can and should be measured by dollars and cents. Were the arts community to disappear or shrink by 50 percent, there’s little chance that Flagstaff would lose 3,000 or even 1,500 jobs. The point, however, is that we’d be much, much poorer for all the non-financial reasons listed at the top, and that’s where the focus of future arts impact studies should lie.

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