So how do the economic benefits of culture play out, exactly? Mr. Sheppard said the answer is not entirely clear, and notes the impact of arts investment ranges widely across different cities. But he cited several hypotheses, including culture’s role in the broader tourism industry, which reels in out-of-town dollars and employs local residents. He also pointed to a more indirect effect: a high concentration of cultural organizations can help foster creativity, which in turn leads to more innovation and overall productivity.
That notion finds support in Sheppard’s other research, which found that clustering local cultural organizations together has a stronger positive impact on per-capita GDP than when they are more widely dispersed. That finding is of a piece with the commonly accepted idea that cities prosper from their dense concentrations of people and firms, which leads to cross-fertilization of ideas and products. It’s also entirely possible the economic impact of the arts operates through both of the above channels, and others that have not yet been identified.
Cultural Alchemy in Cleveland
Fred Bidwell, a former advertising executive and longtime contemporary art collector, is gambling $4.2 million to test these hypotheses. That’s the cost of putting on FRONT International, a triennial art fair set to launch in the summer of 2018 in his adopted hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
He estimates the $4.2 million sum, which he is raising from private donors, foundation funding, corporate sponsorship, and an economic development grant from the city, will generate a direct economic impact of $50 million over its 80-day operating period. Chief among the drivers of that impact are the 300,000 expected attendees, many of whom will be visiting from out of town, spending money at the city’s hotels, restaurants, and shops.
The gamble is based on more than just a hunch. In 2013, Bidwell and his wife Laura opened Transformer Station, a nonprofit art gallery in an abandoned 1920s power station that displays their collection. Since the gallery opened in the underserved Ohio City area, it’s become one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Cleveland, with real estate developers pouring in alongside new shops, restaurants, and employers.
“If arts and culture could bring people to a neighborhood, could it bring new people to a city?” he wondered.
Bidwell also hopes the triennial will enhance Cleveland’s economy through “creating a culture of creativity and innovation,” something he says is often missing in discussion around workforce needs, which tend to focus on science, technology, and engineering skills.
“Creativity is the essence of innovation, and artists open that up to us,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re an accountant or a programmer or what, creativity is foundational.”