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SW Florida arts organizations launch survey to quantify the economic impact of the arts on local communities

SW Florida arts organization leaders launch the AEP6 Survey at the Collaboratory, June 22
Tom Hall, WGCU
SW Florida arts organization leaders launch the AEP6 Survey at the Collaboratory, June 22

On Wednesday, the Alliance for the Arts and dozens of local arts organizations launched the Arts & Economic Prosperity survey. It’s part of a nationwide study by Americans for the Arts of the contribution made by arts organizations to their local economies. This is the sixth such study and involves 387 participating communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In Lee County, the Alliance for the Arts is spearheading the effort to collect the data needed for the study. Within the Alliance, Jennifer Falk functions as the Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 (AEP6) Project Coordinator.

“So the AEP 6 is a year-long survey. It started May 1 and it’s going to go through to the end of April next year,” said Falk.

Project Coordinator Jennifer Falk discusses the AEP6 Survey
Tom Hall, WGCU
Project Coordinator Jennifer Falk discusses the AEP6 Survey

She notes that many people rightly credit art and arts organizations with enhancing quality of life and providing culturally-enriching entertainment ranging from art exhibitions to theatrical productions, but the study demonstrates that the art organizations make a significant economic contribution to their surrounding community.

“I think one of the most surprising things to come out of the last round of the study was that the impact was greater than the spring training program here in Lee County,” said Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Molly Deckart.

Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Molly Deckart introduces the AEP6 Survey
Tom Hall, WGCU
Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Molly Deckart introduces the AEP6 Survey

While art organizations couldn’t exist without their eager, enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers, they also employ full and part-time employees. Those workers spend their paychecks on housing and groceries. They fill up at their corner gas station. They dine out, purchase furniture, appliances, and clothing. They pay property and sales taxes, and the arts organizations themselves pay for utilities, buy supplies, and purchase a host of other goods and services.

When Americans for the Arts added up the numbers in 2017, they found that the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion in economic activity nationally and more than $140 million in Lee County alone.

Or, as Deckart observed, more economic activity than the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox combined during Major League Baseball’s spring training.

The arts certainly supported more full-time equivalent jobs than baseball. Once again, Deckart provides the numbers.

“What we found in 2017 is that over 3,800 jobs were created from the arts and so we’re really excited to quantify the new set of data to see even after the pandemic the impact that we have on employment here in Lee County.”

The past five studies focused exclusively on the nonprofit arts and culture sector, but AEP6 will be a bit broader in scope.

“It’s not just non-profit organizations that are going to be included in the study this time, it’s any organization that has a mission statement specifically dedicated to advancing the arts and culture within the community,” Project Coordinator Jennifer Falk points out.

“And there’s a specific sector of it this time as well that is focused on inclusion and equality, so there is a BIPOC arm of this this time that is specifically aimed at the Black, Indigenous, Person of Color because they are also a massive part of this community.”

The study doesn’t stop with an analysis of the direct contribution made by arts and cultural organizations to the local economy. It also documents what their audiences spend when they attend art exhibitions, concerts, theater performances and outdoor art festivals like ArtFest. Molly Deckart describes this ripple effect.

“So, do you go to dinner, and what that average cost is. Have you traveled to that event? Do you have a drink afterwards or a dessert? Do you walk around and buy something? All of those numbers go into the survey and they actually ask you these specific questions so that it is quantifiable in the end.”

The cafes and restaurants, retail establishments and bars in the surrounding community are the big beneficiaries of this tangential, event-related spending. And it comes not just from local residents, but out of town visitors. In fact, the 2017 study showed that nearly one in four people attending an art or cultural event came from out of Lee County and 69% of those came just to attend the event – with many buying dinner, fueling up and even spending the night at a local hotel.

Once again, if you add up the numbers, the more than 3.4 million people who attended arts and cultural events in 2017 spent more than $106 million in Lee County excluding the price of their ticket or cost of admission.

Documenting the arts’ contribution to the U.S. and local economy is more than an academic pursuit. Much of the programming that audiences enjoy results from grants received by arts organizations from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, the City of Fort Myers and foundations. The data helps secure those grants.

“This study is important for organizations too because they can use [the data] to advocate for their own missions and to really drill down on the importance and impact,” said Deckart.

“I use it all the time. Every grant I write has the economic impact in there, and I think it really does illustrate how vital arts programming is to the economy.”

Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Molly Deckart introduces the AEP6 Survey
Tom Hall, WGCU
Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Molly Deckart introduces the AEP6 Survey

In fact, in 2017, for every $1 invested in the arts, $8 rippled through our local economy - and that’s without the business community promoting attendance at arts and cultural events!

To make the new study a success, participation by local arts organizations is crucial. While Wednesday’s launch was well attended, dozens of other arts organization also need to get on board.

From attendees’ perspective, the process is easy and takes surprisingly little time. Here’s how it works.

There’s a one-page, 13-question survey, available in both English and Spanish. It’s completely anonymous and takes less than three minutes to complete. At some events, random audience members will be handed a clipboard and asked to complete the survey. At others, random audience members will find a QR code in their playbill or other program, which they’ll be asked to complete during the curtain speech or introduction given by the host organization.

“If you come to any of the theater performances, be it youth or adult, there’s going to be a ‘welcome to the show, please enjoy the performance. Also when you have a second, please take the survey if you haven’t already,’” said Falk.

Only one person in a group will be asked to complete a survey, and since the survey seeks to capture off-site, secondary spending by attendees and their parties, all the surveys, even the QR codes, have to be completed at the event while the spending data is fresh in the respondents’ minds.

Since the goal is to find out how much attendees typically spend in total when they go to an arts and culture event, it’s possible that someone could be randomly selected to complete surveys at more than one event. That’s okay because what they spend before and after an art show will be different from what they spend when they go to the theater or a concert.

Many people dislike taking surveys. The AEP6 is different. If you want the same or expanded arts and culture programming at your favorite arts organizations, then give them the ammunition to secure the funding they need. Help the Alliance achieve its goal of collecting a minimum of 1,200 surveys by April 30, 2023 by completing a survey if you’re asked.

“Be aware. We’re going to be hitting you up between now and next April and we need the participation because the way that we really make this study count is by getting a wide swath of our community,” said Deckart.


  • AEP6 is the largest and most inclusive study of its kind ever conducted.
  • The five previous studies were conducted in 1994, 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017. AEP6 was supposed to be launched in 2021, but was postponed for 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Event-related spending includes amounts spent on food and beverages, gifts and souvenirs, local transportation, lodging and even baby sitting and child care.
  • In 2017, residents spent an average of $26.46 per person before and following an art event, concert of theatrical performance. Out-of-county visitors, by contrast, spent an average of $47.31 per person.
  • Cultural tourism is a growing segment of travelers. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, roughly 80% of the 150 million adults who travel more than 50 miles from their homes can be considered “cultural tourists,” and the United Nations World Travel Organization forecasts that global cultural tourism (trips with the main or associated purpose of visiting sites and events with cultural and historic value) will increase by fifteen percent in the coming years. AEP5 found that visitors spend more and stay longer to seek out authentic cultural experiences.
  • Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Molly Deckart points out that for each dollar of funding that governmental agencies provide to arts organizations, $8 ripples through the local economy. Some of that comes back to those government agencies in the form of income, sales and bed taxes. On a national level, the $5 billion that federal, state and local governments provided to arts organizations in direct funding in 2017 yielded $27.5 billion in government revenue.
  • Alliance Executive Director Molly Deckart points out that the arts contributed more to our local economy that MLB Spring Training. Research by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the nation’s entire arts and culture sector (nonprofit as well as commercial arts, education, motion picture, design and architecture) comprises a larger share of the nation’s economy than powerhouse sectors such as agriculture, transportation and utilities and boasts an international trade surplus of $30 billion.
  • Of the more than $140 million in economic activity generated by nonprofit art and culture organizations in 2017, $49.7 million was spent in Fort Myers (supporting 1,389 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $6.7 million in local and state revenue).
  • Social impact measures have been added to the AEP6 audience surveys to gauge how arts and culture impacts neighborhood pride and cultural identity.
  • Partially-completed surveys will be reviewed and analyzed, but thorough responses to all three sections of the survey, including respondents’ demographic characteristics, will provide the most useful narrative about how arts and culture impacts the local community.
  • While the Alliance’s goal is to collect 1,200 completed surveys over the course of the year-long study, the organization and its partners will make every effort to collect no more than 50 surveys from any single activity. Over-surveying large or one-of-a-kind events could skew the data. For example, audiences attending a performance of “Hamilton” at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Center might report more event-related spending than those spending the day at ArtFest or the Bonita National Art Festival. AEP6 seeks to generate statistically reliable averages. That’s why it’s best to limit the number of surveys collected to no more than 50 per event.
  • Three separate customized reports will be provided by Americans for the Arts – one measuring the economic activity of arts organizations operating within the City of Fort Myers; a second for all of Lee County, including Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs; and a third reporting on the experience of art organizations run by and serving black, Indigenous and audiences consisting of people of color.
  • The QR code used locally will link to a customized Lee County-specific survey. Users simply point the camera on their smart device at the QR code and an option appears to open the link to the survey. Once the link is opened, options appear to choose between English and Spanish as well as standard and large font versions.
  • Neither Americans for the Arts nor the Alliance and its partners will have access to the personal information of attendees. All versions of the survey are completely anonymous. No individually-identifiable information such as IP addresses will be collected.
  • Local government officials can rely on the accuracy of the AEP6 survey results. Both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities are Americans for the Arts survey partners, as is the International City/County Management Association.
  • Survey results are based on actual data collected. The study does not make or accept estimates for non-responding organizations.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

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