Monday, July 22, 2024

‘It’s an economic engine’: National study shows $75M arts impact in NH County 

Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, presented Monday data on the arts and cultural impact in the region according to a new report. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The greater Wilmington area has been touted an arts community and destination for years. Recent figures released by a national study prove it’s beyond mere conjecture.

READ MORE: NC comedian Fortune Feimster coming to Wilson Center

A survey conducted by the nation’s largest nonprofits arts education and advocacy group, Americans for the Arts, released its 2022 economic impact report, The Arts and Economic Prosperity 6 (AEP6). Last conducted in 2015, the study included New Hanover County of the almost 400 communities assessed nationally.

Countywide, there was $75.6 million in economic activity from the arts sector in 2022, with $19.3 million in spending by nonprofit organizations and $56.3 million in event-related expenditures doled out by audiences. As well, the boost supported more than 1,200 jobs, $40.3 million in income to residents, $1.3 million in local tax revenue, $2 million in state taxes, and $8 million in federal taxes. 

“And this is just a baseline,” Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, told Port City Daily. “The arts’ impact is much larger than this.”

AEP6 surveyed 32 of 68 local nonprofit organizations, asking for their budgets, including expenditures and event attendance numbers, and used an input-output analysis model sanctioned by the National Association of Counties and the U.S. Mayor’s Association. It also culled 691 audience surveys, collected from people who were present at various performances and exhibits between May 2022 and June 2023.

Local nonprofit participants included the arts council, Bellamy Mansion, Dreams Center for Arts Education, Opera House Theater Company, Cape Fear Museum of History, Cameron Arts Museum, Thalian Association of Wilmington, Cucalorus Foundation, Wilmington Children’s Museum, Wilmington Regional Film Commission, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra, among others.

AEP6 is a conservative approach to establishing economic reach the arts has in a community since not all nonprofit organizations it tapped participated. Thalian Hall, for instance, was left off, as the timing of the report’s research was when its former executive director Tony Rivenbark passed away, followed by the exit of Thalian’s development director Melissa Miedema.

“I didn’t know until we got the report that Thalian wasn’t on it,” Bellamy said, adding the nonprofits went through Americans for Arts directly to collect data.

Also, the report doesn’t take into account the for-profit sector, such as privately owned art galleries, and in Wilmington’s case, concert venues like Live Oak Bank Pavilion and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. 

Port City Daily asked the city how much revenue the two venues brought in since 2021 and its count for additional jobs created; this will be updated upon response.

Monday, Bellamy presented AEP6’s findings, along with Jeff Bell — executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council — to locals from participating nonprofit organizations, the local arts council board, as well as government officials. County commissioner Rob Zapple and City of Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo were on hand, gathered in the lobby of $41-million publicly funded theater, Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College (the arts complex is now funded through CFCC, private donations via CFCC Foundation and Monday, Bellamy presented AEP6’s findings, along with Jeff Bell — executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council — to locals from participating nonprofit organizations, the local arts council board, as well as government officials. County commissioner Rob Zapple and City of Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo were on hand, gathered in the lobby of $41-million publicly funded theater, Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College (the arts complex is now funded through CFCC, private donations via CFCC Foundation and ticket and membership revenue). 

Bellamy clarified the report didn’t include ticket admission. 

“I assume that the numbers you’re putting out there, you should add another 30% or 40%,” Zapple inquired. 

Bellamy responded she was still working to figure it out, but said the data in the survey didn’t capture everything fully. It doesn’t account for non-participating organizations, for example. However, on a phone call Tuesday, Bellamy said any arts nonprofits that weren’t involved can enter information on the council’s website in the AEP6 calculator to configure how it contributes to the local economy (click here).

The survey gathered over 1 million people were present at various events in the region last year.

“Every person that attended an event in New Hanover County on average spent $44.94 a person,” Bellamy relayed Monday. 

But that figure increased when it came to non-local attendees. AEP6 found one of every three people surveyed — required to provide a zip code of residence — came from out of town. Each spent roughly $60.55, as travelers often dined at a restaurant or shopped beforehand and secured lodging.

“Holy smokes,” Zapple said. “That’s called increasing the pie, not taking the single pie and dividing it up more.”

The non-local audiences also had to answer whether their travel to the area was based solely on attending an arts event. They answered yes 70.7% of the time.

“This is big business,” Bellamy told Port City Daily. “We want to quantify and make real to our elected officials and the general public about the value of the arts beyond just the quality of life that it affords us here in southeastern North Carolina; the fact is, it’s an economic engine.”

Jeff Bell of the N.C. Arts Council shared the state’s news as part of AEP6, which indicated the arts sector in North Carolina grew by 5% since the last report, as compared to a national 7% decline. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Bell presented North Carolina’s outcome in the survey. Overall, the state rose above the national nonprofit arts sector average, which experienced a 7% decline in economic impact. North Carolina had a 5% increase, with nonprofit arts organizations bringing in $2.23 billion to the state and providing 38,000 full-time jobs.

Bellamy added New Hanover County excelled beyond other North Carolina areas, many with larger populations, including Charlotte. 

Even the local volunteer base is robust, according to the report. A total of 2,214 volunteers donated 60,000-plus hours to the 32 participating nonprofits surveyed. That equals time put in worth $1.8 million.

Data collected from the coastal region shows how arts enrich lives and bring joy, according to Bell.

“Arts expose us to different traditions, and they make our communities more culturally rich and vibrant,” he added, “but they also have a significant impact on the economic health and vitality of our state.” 

Bell said AEP6’s survey was more qualitative this year, in that it included a closer look at audience support. In New Hanover County, 84% of surveyors said going to performances and events generate pride in their community and 80% expressed feeling loss if a venue or activity no longer was available. 

“We know that performing arts venues like the Wilson Center, galleries, and festivals were among the first to close down in 2020 and among the last to come back with in-person programming,” Bell said. “While we’ve all come to embrace Zoom and hybrid work environments, digitally streaming a dance performance or teaching kids the beauty of spoken word poetry via webcam was not always feasible for most artists and arts organizations, but it also lacked the amazing human connection that audiences and artists alike benefited from.”

Bell credited the boom in nonprofit arts’ spending last year to efforts put forth by agencies, organizations, and state and local governments amid Covid-19. Many nonprofits took a hit during the pandemic, provided funds, such as through the American Rescue Plan Act, helped offset lost revenue.

The City of Wilmington allocated $700,000 in ARPA money to nonprofits in 2021, of which $200,000 was distributed to more than a dozen arts organizations via the local arts council. New Hanover County also provided $700,000 in ARPA funds to area nonprofits, disseminated though the United Way; only one arts organization, Blank Canvas Awareness Art, received funding for just more than $14,000 on the county’s list. 

The city and county also provide a financial boost in their annual budgets for numerous cultural agencies and organizations. The City of Wilmington, for example, gave the community arts center almost $79,000 and Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts, which also houses city hall, $163,039 this fiscal year.

The county allotted $28,000 to the Cucalorus Film Foundation, $20,0000 to the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra and $37,000 to Brooklyn Arts Music Academy, among others in its 2023-2024 budget.

Both entities support the local arts council, which is operating with $745,258 this fiscal year. The county contributed $100,000 to this year’s operations, while the city padded it with $25,000 and an additional $10,000 from its ARPA pot. Bellamy asked the city last year for more money — $125,000 — but was declined.

“When we were first established, the city gave us $40,000 in each of our first three years,” Bellamy said on a phone call Tuesday morning. “And this was money that came from the sale of St. Andrews to the for-profit Brooklyn Arts Center. The balance of the proceeds from that sale went into an endowment that was created for the arts council. So we also were able to get $12,000 from our endowment, which is about $250,000.”

The General Assembly appropriated $200,000 in its recently passed state budget to the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County as well. 

Bellamy said the local council is just one of a vast network of agencies statewide, around 80 councils, that the legislature supports. The General Assembly bumped up allocations for grassroots grant funds by an additional $2.5 million this year. This money goes to all 100 counties, even ones that don’t have arts councils; it may be funneled, instead, through school districts, Bellamy clarified. 

The state is giving Wilmington’s arts council $73,000 — money that recurs annually — for grassroots arts funds.

“We just received word we would get another $63,000 in additional funding from the state,” Bellamy said Tuesday.

The arts council’s main objective is to shoulder support for the area’s nonprofit organizations and individual artists via grants, while also fostering growth community-wide through various outreach programs. The council oversees Fourth Friday Gallery Nights and a pedestrian art installation program in downtown Wilmington, produces the Wilmington Theater Awards, and hosts annual fundraisers, such as The Arty Party, as well as supports Broadway for a Better World in conjunction with Wilson Center. They provide free tickets to theater events for underserved community members.

“I’ve always said the creation of jobs and companies that move to this area go hand in hand with what we are able to do with arts and what people can enjoy here in Wilmington,” Saffo said Monday. “I always hear: ‘What is there to do in Wilmington?’ Well, there’s a lot to do today and a lot more coming. And that’s a testament to everybody that’s in this room.” 

Mayor Bill Saffo at Monday’s announcement noted arts and cultural happenings help bring jobs to the city. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

It’s the second time the AEP6 study has been conducted in the Wilmington art council’s lifespan. The current council began in 2011.

“Prior to that time, we went without an arts council for 10 years,” Bellamy told attendees Monday. “So there was no organization here to do this type of study.”

The explosive growth the area witnessed in the last decade means local arts organizations and council’s needs continue to shift and expand year by year. Bellamy said she has heard from local community groups about the want for a mid-sized venue in town.

Wilson Center is 1,500-seat capacity, Kenan Auditorium offers 1,000, Thalian Hall has 600, and its adjoining smaller theater holds roughly 100. 

“Some organizations, their capacity is maybe in the 300 range and we don’t have that,” Bellamy said. “And rehearsal space — they can’t rehearse if they have another production is going on next door, so we’re bottlenecking in some places.”

Bellamy also said the arts council — which operates with one full-time staff member and part-timers who help with gallery exhibitions — could be outgrowing its location at 221 N Front St. soon enough. It operates out of a 700-square-foot office and gallery.

“To grow staff, we would need a bigger space,” she said. “In a community this size, we need greater capacity to serve an arts community this size.”

Bell said at the press briefing that data like AEP6 strongly exemplifies financial gains directly attributed by the arts, something that should be utilized to leverage greater support moving forward.

“We as art administrators, and those that attend our events and believe in this work, need to always be thinking about sustainability and stability, and I know that that’s not always easy, but it’s vital to ensure our organizations are nimble and strong, now and in the future,” he said. “We must all keep advocating at every level of local and state government and to foundations and for-profit partners for greater investment in the arts and culture sector.” 

Bellamy added she would personally like to see the $1.3 billion New Hanover Community Endowment embrace arts in its grant-giving; the endowment was born of the Novant-NHRMC hospital sale in 2021. The endowment’s focus is funneling money to nonprofits that work in health, education, safety, and economic opportunity.

“I would like the arts to not be singled out as a sector that is undeserving, or we’re not doing the work or we have to build a school or a hospital, in order to qualify for the money,” Bellamy said. 

[Ed. note: The piece has been updated to clarify the for-profit Wilson Center was a $41 million — not $45 — public funded project, and continues to be funded through CFCC and via private donations at CFCC Foundation. PCD regrets the error.]


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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