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Artists are catalysts for renewal and a powerful economic engine.

David Blanchard and me, practicing being tourist attractions inside a tourist attraction (Camden harbor) yesterday. Dave had lost his Old Salt hat to the wind, but luckily it landed inside a dinghy. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.

We tend to think of the arts as intangible contributors to society. They help elevate our souls, but there’s not much money in them. That’s a misconception I try to correct. One can make a living in the arts, but one needs an entrepreneurial spirit and reserves of courage to overcome the negative messages our society sends artists.

The arts in America contribute more than $800 billion a year to our economy. That’s around 4% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These numbers are part of an economic report released last month by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the Department of Commerce) and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The total contribution of the arts in America is equal to almost half of Canada’s GDP. The arts represent more of America’s GDP than the construction and transportation sectors, and nearly five times as much as the agriculture sector.
Teddi-Jann Covell at Camden harbor yesterday. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Broadcasting is the giant in the room, with about $134 billion, and movies are a little behind that. Roughly $22 billion is generated by us independent artists, performers and writers. That’s more than museums, architects, fine-arts schools and performing arts companies. And as we all know, there are also significant grey-market earnings among professional artists (but not by me). Roughly five million people are employed in the arts and cultural sector of our economy, earning $386 billion in 2016.
The arts are one area where America runs a trade surplus. In 2016, we exported nearly $25 billion more in arts and cultural goods and services than we imported, a 12-fold increase over 10 years. (Our exports are largely driven by movies, television, advertising and video games.)
Robert Lichtman, Colleen King and me at class in Camden Harbor yesterday. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
What does this mean in a rural, relatively-poor state like Maine? Arts and culture, science and technology, and business management are three economic drivers that push regional development. The first category is one our state has exploited successfully. Rockland is a great success story of a town totally transformed by the arts.
There is a myth that artists congregate in cities. While it’s true that cities have the highest density of artists, there are many rural communities that attract creatives. Artists like affordable housing, vibrant art scenes, educated communities, and access to a market for their art. In 2017, about 36.7 million tourists visited Maine. (The 2018 numbers should be coming out any day now.) Part of what they wanted to see were artists painting, and part of what they like to buy is Maine art.
Ed Buonvecchio painting the tug Cadet at Camden harbor yesterday. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Because art is handmade, it becomes tied to the place it’s created. That’s an economic-development boon, because the product can’t be outsourced. Artists are great gentrifiers. Their skill set includes entrepreneurism and figuring out how to make things. And an artist is unlikely to leave for another state or country because the Economic Development people offer him a better deal.