A New Study Says the Arts Contribute More to the US Economy Than Agriculture. Here Are Five Other Takeaways From the Report

The arts also contribute more than transportation or warehousing.

The arts contributed more to the US economy than did agriculture, according to a report issued this week. Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/Picture Alliance/Getty Images.

There is lots of anecdotal evidence for the rapid growth of the art industry across the US. The rise of art fairs, the explosion in the number of art galleries, and the growth of art advising as a trade are impossible to ignore. But now we have hard numbers to back up the growth of the cultural economy.

On Tuesday, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts released a report with a stunning takeaway: that the arts contribute $763.6 billion to the US economy—4.2 percent of the GDP—more than agriculture, transportation, or warehousing.

The data, which is pulled from 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, also shows that 4.9 million people work in the arts economy and earn more than $370 billion. (Importantly, the report defines the arts broadly to include everything from jewelry manufacturing to film and TV production.)

“The robust data… show through hard evidence how and where arts and culture contribute value to the economies of communities throughout the nation,” NEA chairman Jane Chu said in a statement. “The data confirm that the arts play a meaningful role in our daily lives,” she added.

Below are some additional key findings of the report.

Courtesy the National Endowment for the Arts

Courtesy the National Endowment for the Arts.


1. The arts are growing faster than the economy at large. Between 2012, and 2015, the arts posted an average annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, slightly higher than the 2.4 percent growth of the nation’s overall economy.

2. Fewer people are working in the arts than they were two decades ago. In 2015, the arts employed 4.9 million workers, who made a total of $372 billion in compensation. That is down from the 2001 peak, when the sector employed 5.8 billion workers. The arts, as the NEA defines the field, employ more people than the fast food industry (3.8 million) but significantly fewer than the construction industry (10.7 billion).

3. The US sends a lot of art and culture out into the world. In 2015, the United States exported nearly $20 billion more in arts and cultural goods and services than it imported. That dynamic, which is known as a trade surplus, is largely driven by movies and TV (French people love Friends!), jewelry, and video games. Works by performing arts companies and independent artists contributed the smallest share: they generated just $1.6 billion in US exports.

4. Museums alone added $5.3 billion to the US economy. The sector grew modestly between 2012 and 2015, at an annual rate of 0.8 percent. That’s a smaller growth rate than the one posted by art schools (2.3 percent), broadcasting (2.6 percent), and photography and photo services (2.9 percent). It’s not the worst of the bunch, though: the publishing sector actually shrunk by an average of 0.6 percent.

5. It’s not just the major cities that are benefitting. In 2015, the arts contributed $67.5 billion to the economies of states where 30 percent of more of the population lives in rural areas. Nearly 630,000 workers in states such as Washington and Utah work in culture.

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