Economic and other impacts of the arts measured in study

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The first-ever arts impact study for Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands has found that the sector brings in nearly $1 billion each year and has five times more artists than previously thought in the region.

Through interviews, surveys and focus groups, the Digital Innovation Group study deemed the area an “arts super region” with 35,000 full-time and casual creatives as well as 25 arts councils active. The study found $910 million in direct economic output flowed from the arts in 2019, contributing $676 million in GDP and supporting 21,920 full-time jobs. 

Executive director of Salt Spring Arts Yael Wand said the report helps quantify the impact of the arts on the local economy as well as cultural, social and health impacts. 

“Nobody in the arts likes to talk about economic impact, because nobody in the arts is doing it for money,” she said. “We all know it, intrinsically, but attaching economics to arts is almost an antithesis to the point of why people are in the arts.” 

Yet knowing these numbers is important, Wand said, and they show that the arts sector is larger than previously thought and also larger than other industries, such as the Victoria cruise ship economy. The study also noted the arts supports 35 per cent more jobs than the region’s forestry sector.

The arts are also a significant draw for tourists, and the 1.2 million “cultural tourists” who came to the region in 2019 tended to spend more and stay longer than other types of visitors.

Ninety-five per cent of businesses who contributed to the study said the local arts sector makes the community a better place to conduct business. An estimated $400 million was spent at local businesses either before or after cultural events in the region in 2019. 

Owing to the pandemic, 2020 and 2021 saw most events halted or moved online. The study found that businesses suffered as a result, with 42 per cent reporting a loss of at least 50 per cent of their revenue in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Yet even being an economic boon to Salt Spring, “the truth is that our community relies on that reputation but it doesn’t invest back in that reputation,” Wand said. She pointed to how artists are relied upon heavily in tourism marketing and often perform or showcase their work without being paid for their time.

Zoning issues can also hamper the arts sector, Wand said, referencing Dragonfly Art Supplies’ 2019 plans to house affordable artist studios in their Rainbow Road facility through a property rezoning. 

“For many reasons and also their own decisions, they had to close that down. A lot of it was having to struggle with zoning issues,” she said.

Another example Wand cited were plans to find a home for the PitchFork Social music series at Bullock Lake, stymied by neighbourhood opposition, land use regulations, a drawn-out application process and ultimately the developer deciding to withdraw their application.  

“When people come up with new creative ways to support business and culture, unfortunately our island isn’t always friendly to those new ideas and new ways, and isn’t always flexible enough to see the value and to make sure those things can thrive,” she said. 

Salt Spring’s ongoing housing crisis was not missed, as the study cited the need to create affordable housing and workspaces for artists. The study noted community arts spaces are also needed, including multi-use spaces that can also be tourism destinations.

“As our established arts and culture creators are aging out and retiring, who is coming in to replace them to maintain that cultural identity of the island . . . and where’s the spaces they can work?” Wand asked, noting that planning for housing and facilities is critical to support a new generation of artists and creatives on Salt Spring. 

Other “opportunity areas” as the report labels them, include breaking down silos between artistic disciplines and better melding the arts into the fabric of the community. 

These silos can be seen on Salt Spring in the form of groups being territorial about their projects or not connecting with other groups. 

“We’re definitely seeing change in that realm,” Wand observed. “People are collaborating more and we’re certainly trying to do that through the arts council.” 

Opportunity exists, she added, to connect the arts to businesses and to organizations working on sustainability or equity and diversity. 

The report also calls for addressing the sector’s “overreliance on volunteers.” Cultural organizations usually employ an average of two full-time staff and over 40 volunteers, whose volunteer time is valued at $115 million per year. 

Wand said Salt Spring’s legacy of volunteerism is incredible and will continue to be key in the arts, yet “in order to have sustainable facilities and organizations, we have to make sure that we’ve got a healthy balance between volunteerism and professional staff.” 

The study found that overwhelmingly, the arts and culture sector is an important force for social connection and well being, and also for attracting people to live in a community. With arts councils involved in downtown renewal and community art projects, 94 per cent of those surveyed agreed that the sector helps to create a distinct local identity. 

Using international findings to quantify the social impact of the arts, the study wrote that the arts have a return on investment of 5 to 1. This means that if $100 is invested into the arts it is possible to see a return of $500 of social impact through, for example, improvements in mental health. 

The study also highlighted the role artists play as thought leaders, with the ability to portray emerging issues and “[challenge] others to reflect and act upon collective problems in unique ways.” 

“It’s way more than hanging a painting on a wall. There’s a lot more we need to be doing,” Wand said, noting that the study will be used to strategically plan, to advocate in the community and with funders to help build the sector locally. 

“Arts should be at the table when we’re doing community planning, it should be at the table when we’re talking about mental health or education. Arts is kind of a key pillar in our community identity, so let’s make sure arts and artists are at the table,” Wand said. 

The study, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, was carried out by the consulting group Nordicity and coordinated by the Digital Innovation Group, which brings together island arts councils. Findings were presented at the Oct. 27-28 Vancouver Island Economic Alliance Summit. 

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