Big Data Delivers: Assessing the "Cultural Ecology" Across 11 U.S. Metro Areas

Another day, another in-depth study exploring the health of the arts in major U.S. cities.

This most recent installment, called 2015 Portfolio, comes to us from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Not content with simply examining the Philly's arts scene, it broadened its scope to look at the "cultural ecology" of 11 U.S. metropolitan regions, including the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C.

All told, the alliance harvested financial, programmatic, audience, and administrative data from 5,502 cultural nonprofit institutions, generating a broad snapshot of organizational health that enables stakeholders to benchmark their performance against their peers. The study's authors pulled this data from the Cultural Data Project, which we looked at a few weeks after its launch. Needless to say, the project is bearing fruit. With thousands of organizations inputting key performance data, groups such as the alliance can now harvest key metrics to create reports like 2015 Portfolio. (Expect a lot more of this.)

The study aimed to address these key questions:

  • What are the underlying trends running across all metro regions and disciplines?
  • Are communities recovering from the Great Recession?
  • Where are the pressure points for the sector?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities for specific disciplines?
  • What trends are impacting the long-term health of all cultural nonprofits?

We encourage you to read the whole report here, but for brevity's sake, we'll take a quick look at some of the most intriguing high-level findings.

For example, the nonprofit cultural sector does seem to be recovering from the Great Recession. Having crunched the financial data from approximately 3,000 organizations, the study found that organization revenue was up 7.0 percent while the sector increased Net Assets 7.6 percent, and endowments rose 13.7 percent.

An arguably even more optimistic metric involved a sector-wide boost in attendance. The study found total attendance jumped 3 percent, totaling 210 million in 2012 across the 11 metro regions. So, what drove this recovery? A 25.4 percent jump in earned income from 2009 to 2012. We're talking about things like admissions, tickets, and tuition, which collectively represent the largest source of income across both Earned and Contributed Income categories—which accounts for individual, corporate, and foundation sources. The only decrease in Earned Income was from subscriptions, where revenue dropped 13.1 percent.

In short, more people are showing up. That's good news.

As for Contributed Income, foundation and Board giving went up—9.2 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively—while all other sources, like individual and corporate funding, declined—9.7 percent and 7.0 percent, respectively.

Now for the not-so-good news. Research found that while many organizations have "recovered" from the Great Recession, "recovery" is a relative term. These aggregate numbers don't necessarily reflect the experience of each individual organization. For example, 42 percent of individual groups reported deficits in the most recent fiscal year (one in five reported deficits over 10 percent). This trend held across each discipline.

Ultimately, the authors encourage organizations to do the things they probably already know they should be doing (then again, maybe not). This includes broadening the donor base, reversing the decline in individual giving, making cultural experiences "technically sophisticated" and "socially relevant," and sharing best practices.

Ultimately, it's a mixed bag of information. For instance, while board and foundation giving increased, federal, state, and local funding all decreased. We expect many more reports and data to come out of this project, so stay tuned...

Related: The National Center for Arts Research Gauges the Health of the U.S. Arts and Cultural Sector