Vegas Day Two: It's The Economy, Stupid

Although I had several working meetings here on Thursday, the conference itself began on Friday and featured several tracks of arts-related focus. I dabbled in sessions on public art, civic engagement, and arts education, but my primary focus was in the private-sector track, because it relates so closely with what we are trying to accomplish with Work for Art. So we were looking at contributions from businesses, foundations, and individuals. Exploring trends in each of these areas. Understanding how to better engage employees in arts volunteerism. And rethinking how people will give their money differently in the future.

Incidentally, research I had conducted earlier in the week helps illustrate the essential role that these and other contributions play in the typical art’s organization’s budgets in Portland. In our city, similar to arts organizations everywhere, arts organizations typically earn 42% from ticket sales, and the rest comes from contributions from the private sector, and a small amount of public funding from local, state, and national governments.

Lunch of Friday featured the national release of Arts & Economic Prosperity III, a national report that quantifies the economic impact of the country’s nonprofit arts organizations. Their direct spending last year was $63.1 Billion, and their audiences spent another $103.1 Billion in event-related purchases (restaurant meals, parking, souvenirs, etc) to create an incredible $166 BILLION industry. The bottom line in this report is that all of this spending creates jobs which in turn are taxed by local, state, and federal governments to create more than 7 times in government income than the governments invest in the system. Therefore this notion that arts organizations are a drain on the economy can be abolished once and for all. On the contrary: dollars invested in arts and culture actually help BUILD the economy.

I should mention that I was the project manager for Portland’s participation in this study, which contributed to the findings of the national report. A separate, local report describing our own organizations and impacts will be released this Wednesday (June 6th) at the NW/BCA Arts Breakfast of Champions and in front of Portland City Council later that morning. When that happens, the report will be available for download at

Friday evening several of us drove up to Fremont Street and the old Las Vegas strip. Since I came here last, a new digital illumination system dubbed Viva Vision has been installed into the overhead canopy, which lights up at night with 5-10 minute video presentations, some of which are cool, some of which are as cheesy as the surroundings. But the 9:00 show by artist Jenny Holzer was a fantastic installation – a giant moving poem above our heads. Bold white words in a modern sans-serif point-end typeface bloomed and scrolled across the sky, with thought-provoking anecdotes ("truisms") like and feminist rants like "a man can't know what it's like to be a mother."

Loved it. Apparently many in Vegas do not. We heard from a cultural official that the work has been very controversial in this surprisingly-conservative town, and that it would be decommissioned before much longer. Yeah, T and A everywhere you look in Vegas, but please don’t make us think. I’m glad we got to see it.

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