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Arts sector contribution to US economy remained strong even as pandemic took its toll: NEA study

A report released last week by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is now underscoring not just the dramatic extent to which the arts sector shrank relative to the wider US economy, but also its ability to continually create big contributions to the national gross domestic product (GDP) in the face of such losses.

The report details how the arts sector shrank at nearly twice the rate of the general economy from 2019 to 2020—falling by 6.4% when adjusted for inflation, relative to the 3.4% fall that the overall economy saw—while still contributing $876.7bn, or 4.2%, to national GDP.

“While arts and cultural industries and workers nationwide have sustained heavy losses, the sector continues to play an outsized role in the U.S. economy—as the new data demonstrate,” said NEA Chair Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson. “The NEA is committed to participating as a key partner in the recovery of this sector, recognizing not only its economic value, but also the arts’ capacity to transform the lives of individuals and communities in other ways, contributing to health and well-being, and overall resilience.”

\"\"To place this into context, when 2019 data was analysed by the NEA last year, it showed that in the year before the pandemic the arts sector contributed $919.7bn to the economy, or 4.3% of the national GDP. This means that despite the sector’s nearly 50% drop, its overall GDP contribution fell by only one tenth of one percent. This massive, consistent contribution also highlights how typically underappreciated the arts are in terms of their contribution to America’s economy, The Art Newspaper reported.

Performing arts presenters and performing arts companies ranked alongside oil drilling and exploration and air transportation as the hardest hit sectors of the entire economy, with the fiscal value added by performing arts presenters dovetailing nearly 73% between 2019 and 2020.

“We knew in our bones that 2020 was a devastating year. This report shows that it was the most severe economic setback for the arts in the last 22 years for which we have data,” Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis at the NEA, told Forbes. “The industries that are still working and thriving—including performing artists and performing arts presenters—the reason they’re thriving is because of their ingenuity.”


According to a 2019 study, roughly 34% of artists are self-employed, and because data on self-employed artists and art workers remains hard to gather, the arts sector figures cited in this article did not include the contributions of these individuals. However, the study does note that the economic contributions made by independent artists, writers and performers did fall by as much as 20.6%, and that the unemployment rate among artists, which was 3.7% in 2019, went as high as 10.3% in 2020 and is presently around 7.2%.

“I think everyone would like a more comprehensive, easy-to-understand way of articulating how valuable artists are to a variety of other sectors and what are their unique needs and support systems,” Iyengar told Forbes. “That’s something we’re continually tracking and hoping to develop through our research grants and our own work over the next few years.”


Sources: The Art Newspaper, NEA Report, Forbes