Measuring the Economic and Social Impacts of Cultural Organizations


Stephen Sheppard, Williams College

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Volume 10, Issue 2 | December 13, 2014


In 1941, world-renowned economist John Maynard Keynes became chair of the
Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (precursor to the Arts Council of Great
Britain) and in the committee’s first annual report following the end of the war, he wrote that:

  • The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it
    belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied,
    by our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation
    and behaviour [sic] and religion.2

Nearly 70 years afterwards, the day Keynes spoke of remains elusive, and communities
as well as the cultural organizations they support are frequently asked about the economic
and social impacts that are associated with the presence of such organizations. In measuring
the social and economic impact of cultural organizations, there are at least three possible
types of impact that should be the focus of our efforts. The economic activity that takes
place in the community, economic indications of the desirability of the community and the
‘quality of life’ available for residents, and the social cohesion and social connectedness of
the community. Before proceeding to discuss approaches to measuring each of these types
of economic and social impact, we should identify some of the reasons why measurement
of economic and social impacts is so important for cultural organizations and community
development practitioners. The issue seems to arise with greater frequency regarding arts
and cultural organizations than it does with regards to many other producers of goods and
services. Why?

Most producers of goods and services can, by collecting payments from those who
consume the goods and services made available, collect sufficient revenues to completely
cover the costs of production. For some goods and services, and often for cultural goods and
services, this is not possible, and purely private decisions made by potential suppliers will
result in too little—or even none—being made available to the community. In such cases
it will often improve community wellbeing to make some collective decision or implement
some policies that will result in a larger amount of the good. These actions can take several
forms, ranging from direct public provision to exempting from income taxation any donations of funds to assist in the production. When such policies are implemented, it is natural
and appropriate to make some comparison between the collective costs of the policies with
the collective benefits of having the increased supply of the good or service. In this sense
it is natural and appropriate to inquire about the economic and social benefits of arts and
cultural organizations.

Local Economic Vitality

In evaluating the “impact” of cultural organizations, the initial focus is generally the
overall level of economic activity in the community, including the total value of goods and
services produced, the income generated, and the number of workers employed in this
process. Measurements of this sort can be carried out either retrospectively, for an existing
organization or set of organizations, or prospectively for a new or proposed organization.
For both types of evaluation it is appropriate to begin with an economic model of the local
economy that provides an estimate of the difference between the level of local economic
activity with and without the organization being evaluated.

For retrospective evaluation, the analysis provides a comparison between the current
observed level of economic activity and the total value of output, labor earnings, or employment
that would be observed if the organization being evaluated did not exist and everything
else in the local economy remained the same. For prospective evaluation the analysis
again compares the observed state of the local economy with a counterfactual: in this
case the level of economic activity that would be observed if the organization commences
production (with a proposed budget and level of production) and all other factors in the
economy remain the same.

Such evaluations are most frequently undertaken using linear models that have been
calibrated to the structure of the local economy, including current levels of production and
employment in each industry, the interactions between different industrial sectors, and the
patterns of final sales to local households. In these evaluations the budget of the organization
itself and the expenditures of visitors who are drawn to the community from outside
provide the starting point for measuring impacts (generally called the direct effect). Additional
impacts accumulate based on changes in activity levels in other local industries that
supply the organization or its local trading partners (called indirect effects). Finally, these
direct and indirect impacts typically result in increased local employment and earnings, and
the increased local income will in part be spent purchasing goods and services from local
industrial sectors and further increasing local economic activity (called the induced effects).
The combined impacts will generally be larger than the direct effects that are based on the
budget of the cultural organization, and this increase is often referred to as the “multiplier”
for the cultural organization.

There are several important observations to be made about the multiplier and this approach
to evaluation of economic impacts. First, the multiplier is derived from a calibrated model of
the local economy, usually comprised of data at the ZIP code or county level. It is an estimate
that emerges from observed patterns of trade and exchange and when done properly generally
produces values between 1.5 and 2.5.3 While values outside this range are certainly possible,
they should be viewed with caution.

Second, impacts measured in this way should generally be regarded as the maximum shortor
intermediate-run impacts on the local economy. As noted above, the impacts make comparisons
assuming other conditions and production levels remain constant. Given time to adjust,
other factors will typically not remain constant. A new performing arts center may boost local
economic activity, but some of these gains may over time be eroded because local businesses
that provided other forms of entertainment—from bowling alleys to movie theaters—find that
households are spending more time at the new performing arts center and less time pursuing
other forms of entertainment. This caution is further motivated by the simple argument that
if the population of the community remains the same, and labor productivity is not changed,
then total earnings of residents will remain approximately constant. Unless new visitors are
drawn from outside of the community to patronize the new cultural organization, there may
be zero net increase in local economic activity.

Of course, there are situations when local cultural organizations do increase local labor
productivity or attract visitors from outside the community. In such cases cultural organizations
may have persistent local economic impacts, and an increase or decrease in the activities
of these organizations will generate changes that persist even after all local economic adjustments
have taken place.

Whether there is such a long-run relationship between the total production of local cultural
organizations and local economic activity has almost never been investigated, but a recent paper
attempts to provide such an evaluation.4 By looking at more than 20 years of data from 380
metropolitan areas in the US, the authors are able to establish that there is a long-run positive
relationship between output of cultural organizations and local economic output per capita.

Quality of Life in the Community

Cultural organizations often make their surrounding communities more attractive places to
live. Living in the community requires purchasing or renting a residence. If living in a community
becomes more attractive relative to other places, we then expect an increase in the demand
for residential property in the community. This increase in demand for property will cause an
increase in the market value of residential property.

Such increases in property values have been controversial in some communities, and on
occasion have caused concerns about whether these increases in property values will result in
gentrification and reduced availability of affordable housing. Whether or not such changes
take place, the increase in property values would provide an indication of the ability of
cultural organizations to enhance the desirability of a community as a residential location
and to enhance the wealth and wellbeing of local residents.

These observations do not dismiss or discount concerns about affordable housing, but
such concerns should not be an excuse for avoiding actions that improve quality of life in a
community. Housing values are also increased by good local schools, but it would be shortsighted
to embrace underfunded and underperforming local schools so that housing would
be more affordable. A more appropriate response is to embrace and support policies that
improve local quality of life while simultaneously working to ensure that housing supply
increases include a range of affordable options.

Do cultural organizations have a measurable impact on the value of local residential
property? Most observers answer this question affirmatively, but again there are surprisingly
few empirical studies that demonstrate and measure this impact. One such recent study
examines the creation or expansion of art museums in four different urban areas.5 In each
of the cases, the opening or expansion of the museum resulted in an increase in residential
property values with the largest impacts estimated for properties near the museum. Estimated
impacts extend for distances from one to more than 20 kilometers.

The total increase in local wealth thus associated with increased production by local
cultural organizations ranges from a few million to hundreds of millions of dollars. While
further testing and estimation of such relationships is warranted, it seems clear that an important
economic measure of local impacts of cultural organizations is the associated increase in
local residential property values, an increase that is unambiguously related to the ability of
such organizations to improve the quality of life for current or potential residents.

Another possible approach for evaluation of how cultural organizations affect the quality
of life in communities is to make use of subjective measures of wellbeing and life satisfaction
that have shown promise in other applications. One recent study presents a tentative
exploration of this relationship.6 The study uses a small survey sample in a single city, and
establishes a weak relationship between participation in arts activities and responses designed
(and used in other studies) to measure life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing of respondents.
The statistical analysis presented is limited but the study does suggest some promise
for such an approach. This would be particularly true if the analysis could evaluate responses
over several time periods, during which there were unambiguous changes in number or levels
of operation of cultural organizations.

Social Connections

Community development practitioners, artists, and administrators of cultural organizations
have noted that the benefits generated for their host communities extend beyond
changes in levels of economic activity. This is no doubt correct, and while the evaluation of
residential property values can provide some evidence of the magnitude and extent of such
benefits, there is strong interest in developing methodologies that do not rely on observed
market prices and transactions.

One potential approach is to directly evaluate the capacity for cultural organizations to
strengthen social networks in the community, and to examine the position of cultural organizations
within these communities. The idea that underlies this approach is that the social capital
that is essential for community function is built through interaction between community residents.
This is directly facilitated by cultural organizations that provide a venue for residents and
neighborhood groups to meet, interact, and exchange ideas in formal and informal ways.

Two recent studies have drawn attention to this specific function of cultural organizations
by introducing network analysis to evaluate the social function of cultural organizations.7 The
first paper introduces some basic measures of network density and the centrality of an organization
in its network (essentially the number of other individuals and social organizations that
could be connected through their connection to the cultural organization). The second paper
presents case studies of three cultural organizations in very different urban settings and regions
of the country. In this analysis, applications identified the neighborhoods and geographic areas
that are potentially connected through their association and interaction with the cultural organization.
Evidence is also presented that demonstrates the ability of cultural organizations to
connect nearby communities that are in many respects very disparate.

These studies suggest that the analysis may have great potential for tracking the social
impacts of cultural organizations. Undertaking studies of social connection in and between
communities requires more data collection than analysis of traditional economic measures
because the economic data are routinely collected for other purposes. More complete analysis
of social networks would provide measures taken over time, showing how the nature
of the social network changes with the opening or expansion of cultural organizations in

Conclusions and Directions for Future Research

As cultural organizations seek support from the public sector and communities, it is
natural and appropriate to inquire about the magnitude of social and economic benefits arts
and cultural organizations generate. We have reviewed several methodological approaches that have been applied for such evaluations. Evaluations using economic models provide a
useful starting point, but generally should be viewed as providing an approximation of the
short-run impacts. Recent analysis has confirmed that there are long-run sustained impacts
on local economies, but the magnitude of such impacts may diverge significantly from the
multipliers that emerge from short-run analysis.

Evaluation of the impacts on quality of life and the social structure of communities is more
difficult, and three approaches that have been used can potentially measure these impacts.
Changes in the value of residential property, changes in survey responses concerning
subjective wellbeing, and analysis of local social networks all show promise in this regard. As
community development practitioners continue in their efforts to understand the impacts
of these organizations, it is essential to choose some approaches that can be applied repeatedly
over time. Establishing a baseline of these measures that characterize a community,
and then tracking the changes as new organizations open or expand will provide the best
approach for measuring the full range of benefits that cultural organizations can bring to
our neighborhoods and cities.

1. Department of Economics, Williams College, 24 Hopkins Hall Drive, Williamstown, MA 01267.

2. John Maynard Keynes, “First Annual Report of the Arts Council (1945-1946)”, 1946.

3. That is, the total change in local economic output will be 1.5 to 2.5 times the sum of the budget of the
cultural organization and the total expected expenditures of visitors coming from outside the community.

4. Peter Pedroni and Stephen Sheppard, “The Economic Consequences of Cultural Organizations,” Chapter
9 in The Arts, New Growth, and Economic Development, Michael Rushton, ed., (Brookings Institution Press,
Washington, 2013).

5. Stephen Sheppard, “Museums in the Neighborhood: the local economic impact of museums,” Chapter 8 in
Handbook of Economic Geography and Industry Studies, Giarattani, F., Hewings, G., and McCann P., eds.,
(Edward Elgar Press, Cheltenham, 2013.)

6. Alex C. Michalos and P. Maurine Kahlke, “Arts and the Perceived Quality of Life in British Columbia,” Social
Indicators Research
Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-39, March 2010.

7. Kay Oehler, Stephen Sheppard, Blair Benjamin and Laurence Dworkin, “Network Analysis and the Social
Impact of Cultural Arts Organizations,” 2007,; and Kay Oehler and Stephen Sheppard, “The Potential of Social Network Analysis for
Research on the Cultural Sector,” 2010,

Stephen Sheppard, PhD, is the Class of 2012 Professor of Economics at Williams College and founding
director of the Williams College Center for Creative Community Development (C3D). Before coming
to Williams, he had been at Oberlin College, the London School of Economics, Washington University
in St. Louis and Virginia Tech. Professor Sheppard’s research focuses on the economics of housing
markets and urban areas, particularly the impacts of environmental and cultural amenities on property
values, land use regulation, the causes and consequences of urban expansion in cities around
the world, and the impact of cultural organizations on urban and community development. His
research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the World Bank, the National Science Foundation,
the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Institute of
Museum and Library Services, the National Center for Real Estate Research, the UK Department
of Environment, Transport and the Regions and the UK Department for International Development.