Who Says Culture Doesn’t Pay? $9.9 Billion Was Spent on New Arts Projects Around the Globe in 2017

The Louvre Abu Dhabi was, unsurprisingly, the priciest building completed last year.

A striking 107 new cultural facilities opened around the world last year, up from 101 in 2016, according to a new study. These museums, performing art centers, and cultural districts cost a combined $9.9 billion, up from the $8.45 billion spent in 2016.

The figures are published in the second annual Cultural Infrastructure Index, which offers a rare and comprehensive look at the scale of investment into cultural facilities worldwide. The projects tracked by the report include new buildings, renovations, and expansions, all of which have a minimum budget of $10 million.

One big takeaway from examining all this new construction? Arts facilities are increasingly expanding the definition of cultural offerings, just as audiences have been.

“Many of the buildings coming online have expanded the definition of a cultural building—from arts to entertainment and further into ‘experience,'” explains Adrian Ellis, the founder of AEA Consulting, which produces the report. Many of the new venues are “now often with associated food and beverage, leisure, and hospitality strategies.”

New buildings including Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town and the Guardian Art Center in Beijing, for example, incorporate hotels, event spaces, and other uses, a reflection of the fact that arts infrastructure “has come to play an important part in the experiential economy.”

Map courtesy of Cultural Infrastructure Index, 2018.

This trend puts cultural infrastructure at a crossroads: Does the future lie in the Museum of Ice Cream model, in which private companies pay for cookie-cutter, branded spaces that offer entertainment but no edification? Or does the future lie in what Ellis calls the “Alserkal Avenue model,” referring to the Dubai complex of galleries and artist residencies in Dubai, which represents a distinct, civic cultural district?

The beginnings of an answer to may be found in the regions most packed with cultural development. North America remains the biggest hub for cultural construction (43 projects completed and 57 announced), followed by Europe (33 completed and 40 announced) and Asia (21 completed, 17 announced). The Middle East was home to the most expensive arts building of 2017: the $1.26 billion Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Guardian Art Center Beijing, China ©️ Iwan Baan / Buro-OS

Guardian Art Center. Beijing, China ©️ Iwan Baan / Buro-OS

The report also notes that cultural investment is expanding “well beyond the bellwethers”: projects in the top 75 global cities accounted for just 31 percent of all completed projects and 35 percent of announced projects. Two less-trafficked hubs, Perth, Western Australia, and Memphis, Tennessee, each saw four projects announced or completed.

In addition to the $9.9 billion worth of completed projects, a total of $7.6 billion was invested into 123 projects  announced in 2017. This represents a modest increase in both the number and value of completed projects (six percent and 17 percent respectively) over 2016, but a decrease of nine percent and 11 percent in the value of projects announced, according to the report. “Two data points a year apart do not constitute a trend, but if they did the trend would suggest we are at or near a peak in infrastructure investment,” according to the report.


Courtesy of Cultural Infrastructure Index, 2018.

Meanwhile, more than half the sponsoring organizations were nonprofits, 40 percent were public entities, and eight percent were commercial. The report rightly notes that the latter breakdown is worth keeping a close eye on. Over the past 25 years, there has been “heavy investment” in arts building, “frequently to anchor urban redevelopment and attract inward investment and tourism, even where the recipients of the funding are not-for-profit or other private entities.”

The Akiko Yamazaki & Yang Pavilion, Asian Art Museum San Francisco, CA, US Concept design at ©️ wHY

The Akiko Yamazaki & Yang Pavilion, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Concept design at ©️ wHY

“We are seeing the private sector increasingly adopt cultural infrastructure-based investment strategies, and taking on a more active role in the sector,” Ellis says.

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