SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


Where the Arts, Economic Prosperity, and Activism Meet

  • Posted Nov 03, 2020

The arts are more than just self-expression and an enjoyable experience, the arts are crucial for a healthy society, both economically and socially.

Alfredo Jaar, A Logo For America. August 2014. Image courtesy of Times Square Alliance, NY. Alfredo Jaar, A Logo For America. August 2014. Image courtesy of Times Square Alliance, NY.

When we think about the arts, we might think of a recent cultural experience, a favorite artist, or something we like to do in our spare time that makes us smile. Rarely would the economy immediately come to mind, yet the arts and economic prosperity are intrinsically linked.

According to the latest Arts and Economic Prosperity report by Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and cultural sector in the U.S. contributed $166.3 billion in economic activity – $63.8 billion in spending by arts and cultural organizations and $102.5 billion in event-related spending by their audiences. This is because of the nature of an arts experience. Generally, a patron will not just buy tickets to the event. They may also pay for parking that is staffed by an outside valet company; go out to dinner before the event, or drinks after the event, which brings business to nearby restaurants; or even book hotels and stay for the weekend, bringing further revenue to multiple businesses over the course of their stay. Ultimately, this activity generated by the arts was estimated to support 4.6 million jobs nationwide and provide $27.5 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments in 2015. So, it’s no surprise that many government leaders recognize the arts as a crucial element for economic prosperity.

The world of financing for the nonprofit arts in the United States is complex, but it’s also fertile. When invested in, the arts sector can be abundantly productive and vital for a healthy society on myriad levels, including economically. In order to identify the potential for any given region, it’s important to understand how the arts are supported in that region, and how that support relates to demand for arts experiences and jobs in the arts. We call this measurement its “arts vibrancy” and provide an annual list ranking the nation’s top 40 communities in the Arts Vibrancy Index Report.


What is arts vibrancy and how can it be measured?

When we talk about “vibrancy,” we are not talking about an opinion of where the best arts experiences are throughout the country; rather, we keep with Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word to mean “pulsating with life, vigor, or activity” and “resonant.” With that in mind, we take a data-driven approach to assessing key characteristics under three main rubrics: supply, demand, and public support for the arts on a per capita basis. Understanding the ecosystem in which the arts live can provide the foundational knowledge to bring success to your organization and your community.

We believe that every city has something to learn from other’s strengths. A great example is Bennington, VT. This community has been identified as one of the top 10 most vibrant small-sized communities in the U.S. for six years in a row. How does this small town maintain its arts vibrancy, and what can your community learn from its scores?

Bennington, VT (pop. 35,470)

Arts Providers




Independent artists



Arts and culture employees



Arts and culture organizations



Arts, culture & entertainment firms


Arts Dollars


Program revenue



Contributed revenue



Total expenses



Total compensation


Government Support




State arts dollars



State arts grants



Federal arts dollars



Federal arts grants



Our analysis examines the key measurements at the Metropolitan Statistical Area/Metro Division level, which provides an objective approach to delineating markets. Because there are 947 unique MSAs and Metro Divisions in the U.S., any ranking between 1 and 95 still puts that community in the top 10% of cities on that measure, and a ranking of 96-190 means the community is in the top 20th percentile, etc. Being ranked in the top 10 roughly means being in the top 1%. Read more about our methodology here.

In this table, you can see that Bennington scores within the top 1% on the measurement of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations – meaning that the number of arts organizations is relatively high when compared to the number of people who live within the region. Generally speaking, the greater number of arts organizations may mean that the community benefits from a greater number of arts experiences as well as possibly a wider variety of arts experiences, which plays into the community’s overall arts vibrancy.

In 2016, leadership at Better Bennington Corporation, a downtown revitalization committee, used its scores to help make the case for more support. The then five-person team has now grown to over 150 arts council members committed to strengthening the community's existing economic assets while expanding and diversifying its economic base through enhancement of its downtown. The work of this group is reflected in each of these scores, but notably its scores under government support. While acknowledging that scores fluctuate on an annual basis, Bennington has shown improvement on its measurement of both state arts dollars and state arts grants for the past three years.


How the Arts Play a Role in Downtown Revitalization Initiatives

Downtowns across the country provide a unique opportunity to restore, energize, and help economic growth for any city or town. While some have seen great success in their revitalization initiatives, many downtowns still struggle to revive boarded-up buildings, crumbling infrastructure, and high vacancy rates that resulted from the rise of suburban shopping malls starting in the mid-20th century.

Different sized communities face different challenges when it comes to revitalizing their downtown areas. Larger cities are likely to have more resources and more capacity, while smaller communities tend to benefit from lower costs of living and greater local support. However, a key aspect that is consistent across all sizes is the need for arts and cultural experiences that speak to the community’s history and identity and to the people who live there.

The American Planning Association identifies Creative Placemaking as the use of arts and cultural activities to draw interest and crowds to the area, which we’ve seen play out in New York City over the last 28 years.

Tim Tompkins, president of Times Square Alliance, explains in a recent webinar how the arts, and specifically Broadway, have helped to turn New York City’s formerly seedy Times Square area into one of the leading cultural destinations in the country.

Thirty years ago, Times Square wasn’t known for being the tourist destination it is today, but rather a pretty dangerous area to find yourself in. Changing perceptions about the area and drawing crowds were the two major early goals for Times Square Alliance in 1992, and it’s kick-off moment started with what has now become one of America’s notable traditions: watching the New Year’s Eve ball drop. Whether it was watched on TV or in person, this event showed people that Times Square was safe and family-friendly. Times Square Alliance continued to strategically build on this impression through Broadway plays and events that not only brought ticket sales to the arts but also economic activity to the local businesses, such as hotels and restaurants. Eventually, programming expanded beyond providing just a night out of fun and into a platform for individual artists to touch upon real issues that the community and the country experience.

“Arts can drive economic activity by nurturing a conversation about what is authentic about a place – by highlighting what the authentic cultural assets are and by moving into activism,” says Tompkins.


Through authentic expression, the ills of society are also naturally brought to light. Downtowns can act as the platform needed for expression and healthy conversation around difficult issues that we face as a society. Tompkins argues that this element is not only important for footfall and changing perceptions, but also that if these societal issues are not addressed, then economic activity will inevitably wither away.

The Arts Vibrancy Index Report

Read this year's report for the full list of top 40 arts-vibrant communities across the nation. 

Read More

The Map: Scores for Every County in the U.S.

Explore and compare your community's scores.

View the Map