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Art is working

Culture and creativity are important drivers in Denver’s growing economy – to the tune of nearly $2B.

January 15, 2019

By Cory Phare

As Denver added 100,000 residents over the past seven years, the number of cranes rising above its skyline became a barometer of the city’s economy.

But with the Mile High City’s population topping 700,000, a new report shows that a more elegant indicator of the metro area’s economic health may be its museums, art galleries, theatrical productions and music concerts. 

Nonprofit arts and culture activity in the seven-county Denver metro area reached a record $1.9 billion in 2017, an 8 percent increase from 2015, according to the latest economic activity study by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.

“Arts and culture is a vital economic driver for the region,” Christin Crampton Day, executive director of the CBCA, said in a press release. “CBCA’s latest economic-activity study demonstrates that the Denver metro area is a growing arts hub and cultural tourism destination, as well as a viable employment sector.” 

Total economic impact, defined as new money to the region, reached $573 million, a 12 percent increase over 2015, the last time the report was published. It also found that nonprofit-culture-sector employment increased 10 percent to 11,820 jobs. 

Published biennially since 1992, the study examined nearly 300 arts, cultural and scientific nonprofits receiving funds from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

Growth in the nonprofit culture sector – particularly the $573 million in new money – reflects the comprehensive approach to urban planning undertaken by Denver, said Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership

“At the very core of an economic engine is a strong city,” she added. “A key component of (a strong city) is access to and engagement with art.”

Demand for culture grows with Denver, said Alexandre Padilla, associate professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

While he doesn’t see population growth tied directly to art and culture (“They still come here for the outdoors”), Padilla noted there is a connection: As the region grows and becomes more cosmopolitan and diverse, it adds more wealth, which increases demand for the arts.

“There is a link between per-capita income and art consumption; it’s population-driven,” he said.

MSU Denver
MSU Denver's Center for Visual Art is anchored in the heart of Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, providing students and community access to world-class contemporary exhibits. "Gravity of Perception," now running through March 26, showcases visual investigation to confront themes of oppression and institutionalized discrimination.

Changing perspectives 

Focused soley on SCFD-funded nonprofits, the full impact of arts and culture in Denver may be even greater than the CBCA study found, said Cecily Cullen, director and curator for MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art.

The report didn’t consider other creative industry work such as commercial galleries, graphic design and higher-education-funded spaces such as the CVA. Nonetheless, Cullen said there’s great value in the CBCA’s efforts to quantify the impact of culture on the larger Denver economy.

“This report demonstrates a real and growing demand for creative experiences in the region,” Cullen said. “Additionally, it underscores that art is not just good for the soul, it is good for the economic health of the community.

“When you see the numbers, it really changes perspective.”

One number from the CBCA report that struck Cullen was the 15 million people who attended cultural events in 2017.

It doesn’t just show an 8.5 percent increase from 2015, she noted, but also that cultural attendance has increased at nearly twice the pace of the metro area’s population growth.

Another statistic Cullen found critical was the dollar figure measuring cultural philanthropy. Although total giving was up 3.5 percent to $182.6 million, it was driven largely by individual giving, as foundation and corporate donations saw declines.

That movement underscores the importance of direct community connection and the value of individual support of nonprofit art galleries such as MSU Denver’s CVA, which functions as a world-class exhibition space and a workforce-development lab, to continue the region’s broader economic boom.

“Colorado’s an amazing place, and the arts are a part of that,” Cullen said. “Overall, we see evidence that there’s a viable job market for creatives here throughout the state.”

The Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry, housed at the University, regularly partners with arts and cultural institutions including the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on productions such as the recent "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot."

Destination Denver

Another important finding of the CBCA report was that metro Denver continues to see a steady rise in economic impact from cultural tourism, which added nearly $400 million to Denver’s economy in 2017. The figure further fuels the city’s anecdotal ascendancy as a destination for high-profile cultural engagements

Spending by cultural tourists has a trickle-down effect on the economies of the local communities hosting galleries, museums, music venues and events, said the DDP’s Door.

“From an economic standpoint, art – and easy access to it – not only attracts visitors to come to Denver, it keeps people in the city,” she said. “We think about destination-driven integration from that standpoint: People might come early for a show at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and wander around to visit shops; maybe they’ll go out to dinner later, extending the length of their stay and generating more economic activity.”

Beyond the (substantial) numbers, it also has implications for a future fueled by expressive possibilities, Door said.

“When a city is infused with art, it’s more creative, innovative and inspired,” she noted. “It’s more optimistic for the future – and it’s important not to take that for granted.”