What Are Some Measurable Benefits of the Arts? It's Getting Easier to Say

  Christian Mueller/shutterstock

 Christian Mueller/shutterstock

One of the perennial challenges facing fundraisers at arts organizations is articulating the objective value of the arts experience. With more funders looking for metrics—and effective altruists asking "how many lives does the opera save?"—how can arts nonprofits best make their case, especially right now, with so many urgent causes vying for donors' attention?

The good news here is that a segment of arts funders don't need piles of spreadsheets to convince them that the arts experience is a worthwhile thing.

Veteran philanthropist Herb Alpert is guided by "what feels right." Music impresario Russell Simmons intuitively believes "art saves lives." And many funders framing the arts as a vehicle for social change aren't beholden to the ROI mindset. For instance, Risë Wilson, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's director of philanthropy, said that metrics were not the motivating factor behind the funder's pivot to addressing mass incarceration.

But additional data illustrating the value of the arts experience would certainly be helpful, especially given the encouraging bump in giving to the arts from more empirically inclined corporate funders over the past couple of years.

I'll take a closer look at some new research corroborating this development in a moment. But first, I'd like to turn to Bloomberg Philanthropies's annual report, which shows how its arts programs "harness the power of the creative sector to improve communities by supporting artists, investing in cultural organizations, and improving audience experience to strengthen the creative landscape that is critical to social and economic vibrancy in cities."

It should come as no surprise that Bloomberg Philanthropies is particularly keen on quantifying the value of the arts. Michael Bloomberg is famously obsessed with data, and while his pragmatic and empirical approach may have its limits in the larger "post-truth" political landscape, his foundation has done the arts community a huge service by linking the arts to data-driven outcomes.

Some of these outcomes are inward-looking in nature. A few years back, Bloomberg measured the progress of its inaugural Arts Innovation and Management (AIM) program recipients and found that, for instance, 79 percent of organizations reached new audiences through targeted marketing campaigns and social media. Sufficiently pleased with the findings, Bloomberg increased funding to the cohort.

In mid-May, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced it was investing $43 million to expand AIM across seven new cities. (As always, participating organizations must "maintain up-to-date information" on DataArts, formerly the Cultural Data Project.)

Bloomberg Philanthropies is also keen on gathering metrics pertaining to the wider community.

In announcing its 2018 Public Art Challenge, its press release noted that the initiative has thus far generated $13 million for local economies, employed 820 individuals, and created 490 programs and activities like tours, workshops and lectures.

Bloomberg summarizes these types of findings in the Arts Investments and Impacts report while providing supplemental background and some new and interesting tidbits. For example, 76 percent of AIM organizations increased their contributed income during the program and 46 million people accessed art through the Bloomberg Connects platform since 2013. 

It's also worth remembering that Bloomberg Philanthropies is touting the quantifiable benefits of its own arts programs, rather than the arts experience writ large. For a broader exploration of the tangible benefits of the arts experience for American businesses and workers, we now turn to research firm ESP.

The firm found that total spending by business on arts sponsorship in North America was $993 million in 2017 and is expected to increase 3.7 percent to $1.03 billion in 2018. This data mirrors research by CECP, a CEO-led coalition founded by actor Paul Newman, which found that corporate cash giving to culture and arts programs grew by 48 percent between 2014 and 2016.

The rise in corporate giving to the arts can be attributed to the usual, often self-interested, motives. 

With the U.S. economy hovering around full employment, companies are pulling out all the stops to attract workers, both to their specific firms but also the places where they operate. A vibrant arts and cultural scene is one thing that younger creative class professionals are looking for when choosing where to live. Meanwhile, research shows that providing employees with access to arts experiences tends to make them happier, and happy employees stick around longer and save HR departments tons of money in avoided recruiting fees. 

Better yet, an ever-growing body of data, like this recent study in the Journal of Business Research, suggests that "aesthetic experiences" in a "business environment" generate "enhanced performance in product design, brand naming, and problem solution generation."

Corporate leaders and HR professionals increasingly understand that the arts experience can be good for the bottom line.

Similarly, companies are viewing the arts and its ability to address social problems as a powerful tool to enhance their brands. 

"Today's corporations," says a recent report by Animating Democracy, "have a genuine stake in social issues, whether it is ensuring a sustainable market for products, healthier customers, or a better community for their employees. The most sophisticated giving programs leverage all the assets a corporation can bring to bear—not just their financial resources. Corporate funders have so many tools to use: their brand and customer loyalty, their products and distribution channels."

Speaking to Strategy Business, Vadim Grigorian, a marketer specializing in corporate art projects, agreed with Animating Democracy's assessment, adding "for visionary business leaders, deep corporate cultural engagement is an opportunity to stand out in the eyes of investors and other stakeholders."

This is all good news for arts organizations, and it represents an important shift in how fundraisers make the case for an arts investments.

Previously, fundraisers typically appealed to a funder's intuition, goodwill, and sense of civic duty. More often than not, this approach worked, especially when dealing with the Herb Alperts of the world, who don't demand a binder of spreadsheets dropped on their desks.

Corporate funders, however, tend to think differently than Herb Alpert. They're often looking for tangible examples of arts investments attracting top-tier talent, saving their businesses money, and elevating their brands by addressing social issues.