The arts made up more than $1 trillion of the US economy in 2021


The arts and cultural sectors made up more than $1 trillion of the US economy in 2021 and claimed a record share of the country’s economic value as the arts grew more rapidly than the wider economy, according to new figures from the US government.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released their data and analysis of the economic wellbeing of the US arts and cultural sectors for the year 2021 this week, as well as the impact that these sectors had on the country’s overall gross domestic product (GDP).

By the end of 2021, the arts and cultural sectors made up 4.4% of the nation’s GDP with an all-time high of just over $1 trillion, and between 2020 and 2021 the economic value of the arts grew by 13.7%, a disproportionately large increase when compared to the wider economy, which grew by 5.9% in the same time span.

The report looked at 35 industries within the arts, ten of which—including both performing arts organisations and independent artists, writers and performers—saw major growth throughout the year, though none bounced back to pre-pandemic levels of economic output. (An interactive infographic found here lets you toggle through the majority of these industries and see their individual economic contribution for 2021.)

The report also notes that art industries employed nearly 4.9 million workers in 2021. While the figure marks a bounceback from a dip in 2020, the number is still lower than the 5.2 million employed in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the number of workers employed by agencies related to the performing arts grew in 2021 by 14% to 230,000 employees, but this was still substantially shy of the 323,000 workers that comprised the industry in 2019. The motion picture industry had similar numbers, with a 23% increase in this time period but still a sharp drop from 394,000 workers in 2019 down to 326,000 in 2021.

One driving factor for the divide in employment between 2019 and 2021 is that the BEA’s figures only account for employees on payroll, and arts establishments may have relied increasingly on self-employed individuals or other contractual workers throughout this time. (Those who work in the arts are, in general, far more likely to be self-employed when compared to workers in most other industries.)

“One of the astounding takeaways for me is just how sharply many industries within the arts sector seem to have rebounded,” says Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and analysis. “If you look at the aggregate numbers, for the first time in the account’s history we’re seeing the arts contribute over a trillion dollars to the economy.”

“In general, I don’t think people recognized how much of an economic footprint the arts have in this country,” he adds. “We are for sure seeing some setbacks for major industries in the arts, but we’re seeing resilience too.”

Along with this data, the agencies released an interactive map that allows users to track the estimated economic growth and output of culturea industries across all 50 states, showing that each one saw an increase in this time period. Some 31 states and the District of Columbia all saw the arts make at least a 10% increase in their Gross State Product, and in 47 of the states and the District of Columbia, the economic value of the arts surpassed pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

The data outlined in the report will be “very helpful” for organisations and communities to understand the value of the arts and how to adjust to encourage growth in the industry, Iyenger says, but warns it’s not the end-all, be-all of the US cultural sector.

“Economics is only one way of communicating the value of the arts,” Iyengar says, noting that the NEA is investing in research on how the arts affect health, social cohesion and learning.

“In all of these different ways of talking about the value of the arts, we get to a clearer, more comprehensive picture of what they contribute,” Iyengar says. “We’re not saying it’s purely economic, but at the same time we’re saying that if you didn’t know the arts mean a big deal economically, this data will tell you that it does.”


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