Viewpoint: Arts play critical role in Nassau’s well-being

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Viewpoint: Arts play critical role in Nassau’s well-being
Karen Rubin, Columnist

We may take it for granted, but the arts writ large are a vital component of Long Island’s economy, society, community and even make the difference in how successful our young people will be in school, career and life.

The arts also play a role in where people choose to live, where businesses choose to locate, and how healthy we are.

Just how vital was demonstrated at a recent presentation of findings in a national study, Arts & Economic Prosperity Study 6 (AEP6), in which Long Island arts organizations participated for the first time – giving the region specifics on its slice of the massive arts’ economic and social benefits pie.

National data collected for the AEP6 reveals that just America’s nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $151.7 billion industry, supporting 2.6 million jobs and generating $29.1 billion in government revenue (for-profit entities like Hollywood film studios not included). On Long Island, data collected by the umbrella organization, Long Island Arts Alliance, showed that arts and culture nonprofits (think Gold Coast Arts Center and Long Island Arts Council at Freeport) generated $330 million in 2022, supported nearly 5,000 full-time equivalent jobs, and generated $15 million in state and local taxes.

The findings should arm these local non-profit arts groups and organizations with the ammunition they need in approaching county, town, city and village governments for funding, and even alert Boards of Education to the danger when they target arts programs in schools for funding cuts to meet the state’s mandated budget cap. The study shows the significant return on investment in arts in quality of life, livability, community, economic productivity. And who can put a price on promoting empathy and reducing depression and anxiety, the need for medication and shortened hospital stays?

The Gold Coast Arts Center’s children’s theater program performs “Little Mermaid.” The Village of Great Neck Plaza recently renewed its annual contract, entitling the village to request cultural programs © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

(Great Neck Plaza gets it: the village just renewed its annual contract with the Gold Coast Arts Center; for $2,500, it gets various cultural events (see https://theisland360.com/great_neck/great-neck-plaza-oks-contract-with-gold-coast-arts-center/)

“Our world now needs a better way to foster empathy and understanding among people of different cultures, ideologies. Arts play a pivotal role, in a powerful and humanizing way, to communicate experience across cultures, social groups, fix social inequalities,” said Dr. James Lantini, a board member of the LIAA, which led the study and organized the conference at the Tilles Center to present the findings. “Engagement from a young age  increases empathy, reduces bias in children.”

That may seem too touchy-feely for elected leaders who tend to make decisions through an economic lens. “Their priorities are jobs, jobs, jobs. So we connect their priority of jobs to arts and culture, our product,” said Randy Cohen, the vice president of research at Americans for the Arts, the national advocacy organization for arts and culture which has conducted the study every five years since 1994.

Of the $330 million in spending on arts on Long Island, 89% comes from local residents and 11% from people coming from outside Nassau or Suffolk. And while locals spend on average $33.96 per person on top of the admission cost, non-locals spend $63.83, while those who overnighted averaged $311 per person per event in added spending. The arts event was the primary purpose for the visit for 76% of the respondents.

Another benefit of these nonprofit arts organizations is how they provide an outlet for volunteerism: 16,988 Long Island volunteers contributed 624,000 hours, a $22.3 million value (not included in the $300 million economic impact).

This study only examined the economic and social impacts of nonprofits, but when the for-profit sectors are added in, the arts nationally amount to $1.02 trillion – 4.4% of GDP – supporting 4.9 million jobs in 2021. New York State’s share of that is $144 billion – representing 7.6% of the Gross State Production – sustaining 450,457 jobs.

“The arts diversifies economies and stimulates job growth,” Cohen noted. “There is a causal relationship with growth in arts jobs and growth of all employment in region or state. So when you invest in the arts and arts jobs go up, all jobs go up because of diversification.”

There is a virtuous cycle of supporting the arts, using arts to cultivate creativity and innovation in young people, quality of life and community spirit that encourages people to come and live, and businesses to locate in those communities because of access to these positive factors.

“Our No. 1 export is highly educated young people, which is devastating. What would keep them? The responses are consistent: they want arts, culture, festivals, public art in the built environment – that’s another economic benefit of a vibrant arts and culture community,” Cohen said. At the same time, employers are looking for “innovation” workers, and use arts education and engagement as a measure.

Arts have another economic and social benefit: Arts promote physical and emotional healing – shorter hospital stays, fewer medical visits, reduced medications and depression, stronger mental health – and consequently save money.

“We are rediscovering the centrality of arts to our lives. Arts build empathy and understanding: 72% agree with the statement that arts and culture provide shared experiences with people of different races, ethnic, ages, beliefs; 63% say arts & culture help them better understand other cultures in the community,”  Cohen said.

Cohen also makes the case for arts education: “The research is clear, students whose education is rich in arts perform better academically, have better grades, test scores, lower drop out rates that cut across all socio-economic strata. Theater and the arts engage kids in school, give meaning to their classes. They see the world and interpret it through the arts.”

A longitudinal study of 25,000 students in 1,000 schools found that arts education not only benefited all, but helped level the playing field between affluent and low-income students.

Roger Tilles, a member of the state’s Board of Regents that sets education policy and an arts activist (the Tilles Center for Performing Arts at Long Island University is named for his family), said the Regents are proposing to change graduation requirements to include infusing arts and music into all levels, even elementary and pre-K.

The board is aiming to reverse the pattern in many school districts over the last 20 years of laying off music and art teachers, a consequence of concentrating resources to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.

“That was so counter-productive to critical thinking, problem solving. We did a whole re-evaluation of what we want kids to learn. Employers, parents and students want critical thinking, information literacy, problem solving, and arts,” Tilles said.

(To read the report, visit longislandartsalliance.org/aep6.)

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