Measuring the social, economic benefits of art and culture

Times of great economic uncertainty also are times of great anxiety for supporters of the arts. With governments at all levels facing budget shortfalls, the resulting political haranguing over which programs to cut has meant increased scrutiny for arts projects across America.

Mural Arts in Philadelphia

Researchers at the Social Impact of the Arts Project at Penn are collaborating with The Reinvestment Fund and the City of Philadelphia in developing a Creative Assets Mapping Database, a web tool that allows users to monitor growth in creative assets and determine their civic, economic and social impacts.


The arts communities continue to enjoy strong philanthropic support. But market fluctuations, disinvestment in the cultural sector and declines in charitable giving have hurt endowments, leading to reductions in private sector funding as well.

Faced with increasingly difficult spending choices, policy makers and philanthropists alike need better tools for analyzing the social and economic impact of the arts and culture on community life. This demand led researchers at the Social Impact of the Arts Project at Penn to collaborate with The Reinvestment Fund and the City of Philadelphia in developing a Creative Assets Mapping Database, a web tool that allows users to monitor growth in creative assets and determine their civic, economic and social impacts.

Investment in the arts and cultural resources can benefit local and state economies by supporting job growth, stimulating commerce and sustaining neighborhoods by stabilizing property values.

The benefits are especially great in communities that don’t have highly visible art identities but do contain rich cultural resources. It’s the difference between the visible culture in Center City and the less visible art and culture in a burgeoning Latino neighborhood, says Mark J. Stern, a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice and principal investigator of the project.

“Through a systematic study of a city like Philadelphia, we’re able to identify parts of the city with clusters of different kinds of arts and cultural activity that may be less understood,” Stern says.

The database project has several goals. At the most basic level, designers hope it will allow users to easily find arts-related events and activities. Such a tool would be useful to residents and visitors alike, Stern says, and would give researchers a better understanding of what kinds of neighborhoods a visitor might want to visit.

Beyond that, however, researchers also are interested in helping potential investors evaluate the cultural, economic or social characteristics of certain neighborhoods to better align proposals for new development and funding.

This, in turn, will enable government and philanthropic users to see precisely where investments are being made and evaluate whether policy changes would create even more social and economic benefits.

The database is made possible by a recent $250,000 grant from ArtPlace, a consortium of national foundations, federal agencies and corporations. The funding matched grants made by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program, which awarded $250,000 earlier this summer to The Reinvestment Fund of Philadelphia to work with Stern’s team.

Communities benefit in multiple ways when there is a vibrant arts and culture base, Stern says. “By developing a ‘livability index,’” he explains, “we can combine information on a full variety of measures of well-being in a neighborhood, including arts and culture, to see where in the city there are major barriers to having neighborhoods that are affordable, livable, safe and healthy.”

In one study undertaken by the project, researchers looked at data from the city health department on the well-being of children 15 years of age and under. They found a strong relationship between the presence of cultural resources in neighborhoods and a much lower level of social stress in the children, even controlling for income. Another study used data from Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission to establish that there are lower incidents of racial and ethnic harassment in neighborhoods that have a significant number of cultural resources.

The challenge, Stern says, is to find a way for those influences to reach a broader section of the community.

“Because of the pressures brought on by the recession, there’s a real need to explain how funding the arts has benefits besides funding a theater, or symphony, etc.,” Stern says. “One of the arguments we’re trying to make [focuses on] the kind of economic payoff the arts [provide] because it has these social effects: It mobilizes communities, turns neighborhoods into places of interest to their residents and to visitors to the city.”

And, he adds, while developers and investors may look first for a quick economic payoff, longer lasting, more sustainable economic benefits are derived from building communities by increasing social connections within neighborhoods.

“It’s that social impact that leads to [the arts] having an economic impact,” Stern says. “Arts and culture [play] an important role in improving the lives of ordinary people, and we should be able to measure it.”

Originally published on October 13, 2011