The following article was printed prior to the recent events and closings related to COVID-19. We felt it important to share how integral the arts are to our economy, with high hopes that after this is all over, the arts will continue to bring revenue into the county.
“Art,” musician Frank Zappa once said, “is making something out of nothing and selling it.” Westchester County is lucky to have a wealth of artists making music, sculpture, dance, film, and every other kind of creative something out of nothing. But this is a business magazine, so we are here to discuss the second half of the equation: selling it.
Here, too, Westchester County is extremely fortunate. The business of the arts is, in fact, booming. According to a recent study, the arts-and-culture sector in Westchester County generates $172.3 million in total economic activity, supporting more than 5,000 full-time-equivalent jobs.
In fact, the economic impact of the arts to the county has increased by more than 218% since 1995, the study shows.
“Arts and culture are critical to the economy in Westchester. They are also critical to the well-being of people in Westchester and to good public policy.”
—Janet Langsam, CEO, ArtsWestchester
“Arts and culture are critical to the economy in Westchester,” says Janet Langsam, CEO of ArtsWestchester, an organization that promotes the arts within the county. “They are also critical to the well-being of people in Westchester and to good public policy. It is important to look at it in a very holistic way. When we talk about the business of the arts, we always talk about the economic impact, but that is a very narrow focus. The arts are uplifting; they are for healing, education, community development. We make a mistake when we look at just the raw data and do not consider the other economic generators, which are huge.”
As one example of this, Leigh Taylor Mickelson, interim executive director of Hudson Valley MOCA (HVMOCA) in Peekskill, points out that when the organization moved to the area in 2004, “Peekskill was struggling,” and now, she says, the town is “vibrant, with a diverse artist-centered community, artist live/work spaces, galleries, public art in several locations, restaurants, and a growing number of arts organizations.
The arts and Hudson Valley MOCA’s involvement in the community was instrumental to this extraordinary revitalization. Peekskill is just one example of how the arts has changed Westchester.”
Kathleen Davisson, general manager of the White Plains Performing Arts Center, points out the “halo effect” that the arts also have: People who attend any performances make a large impact on the overall economy of their location.
“For us,” she says, “with our location on the third floor of a retail mall, our patrons pay to park; they eat dinner at one of the many restaurants in the immediate area; many of them shop at the stores in City Center; then they attend our performance — all bringing money into Westchester County.”
Of course, each arts organization has its own economic footprint. Some are large; others are small. HVMOCA, a nonprofit, does about $500,000 in business and employs five. Katonah Museum of Art posted revenues of more than $1.5 million in its most recent fiscal year, and it employs 10 to 11 full-time staff members, eight to 16 part-time employees, 50 to 70 volunteers, and “scores of contracted service vendors from around Westchester County,” according to its executive director, Michael Gitlitz.
“We are definitely thinking about how to tap into the younger audiences…. We are developing new programming and events that are more interactive, thought-provoking, and at the same time, more social and fun.”
—Leigh Taylor Mickelson, Interim Executive Director, Hudson Valley MOCA
Many arts organizations would quickly hire even more personnel if they had the funds. Case in point: the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center (ChappPAC) and its roughly 70 volunteers. “We love our volunteers; they are a wonderful group, but we need to hire some full-time people in order to function as a full-time theater,” says Michele Gregson, chair of the Friends of Chappaqua Performing Arts Center. “Most of us are wearing many hats.” She says that, ultimately, the organization would love to have up to a dozen staffers, handling artistic direction, technical direction, concessions, ticketing, and more.
That may happen sooner than they think, because many in the arts are quite optimistic about the future, business-wise. “The trend is up! The arts are hot!” Mickelson enthuses. “The word is getting out that art is a stimulus for economic growth.” Indeed, real estate developers seem to have gotten the memo.
For instance, Allstate Ventures recently announced plans to “reimagine” Westchester Place and its surroundings in New Rochelle to include affordable housing for artists and gallery space to display their work. The seven-story 8 Westchester Place will include 25 studios, 26 one-bedroom and 11 two-bedroom residences, all intended for artist housing. It will also feature art galleries among its 6,374 square feet of ground-floor retail, restaurant, and outdoor space.
“Having mature and respected institutions [in Westchester], such as Katonah Museum of Art, Caramoor, Jacob Burns Film Center, Bedford Playhouse, John Jay Homestead, and many others, can create a cultural whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
—Michael Gitlitz, Executive Director, Katonah Museum of Art
This comes on the heels of the opening of Lofts on Main, in Peekskill, in April 2018. The development includes 74 loft-style apartments aimed at artists as an affordable-housing option downtown, with rents ranging from $888 to $1,775. The development features a café and spaces for dance, music, and visual arts. The city also has the Peekskill Art Lofts, a 28-unit cooperative-apartment complex that opened in 2002.
All of that contributes to the economic power of the arts, perhaps in ways that can’t easily be bean-counted. “We haven’t tracked the value of the arts that has to do with quality of life, real estate, and community development,” Langsam says. “People treasure the idea of having arts in their neighborhoods. It symbolizes a healthy, educated, with-it, happening community. That is occurring all over Westchester. As artists move to other neighborhoods, that spirit follows them.” Langsam remembers buying, 20 years ago, the Mamaroneck Avenue building they currently occupy. “There was nothing on the block except an empty department store. I remember standing across the street, looking at the building, and a shopkeeper said to me, ‘Finally, there is evidence of something changing in the neighborhood.’ I think the arts always lead the way; I really do.” ArtsWestchester purchased that building for $1.2 million; today, she says, “we could hardly afford to buy it.”
A recent study by Americans for the Arts, “Arts & Economic Prosperity V,” proves just how important the nonprofit arts-and-culture sector is to the economy of Westchester County:
Arts and culture in Westchester County generate $172.3 million in total economic activity.
Since 1995, the economic impact of the arts to the county has increased by more than 218%.
Westchester’s arts-and-cultural industry delivers $25.8 million in local and state government revenue.
In Westchester County, 5,179 full-time-equivalent jobs are supported by the arts industry.
Attendees of cultural events spend an average of $21.84 per person, per event, and that doesn’t include the cost of admission. They pay for dinner at a restaurant, parking, childcare, souvenirs and gifts, and even overnight lodging.
62% of nonresidents surveyed indicated that their primary purpose for visiting Westchester County was “specifically to attend this arts/cultural event.”
There are always challenges in any business sector, and the arts are not immune. Langsam notes that audiences today are more fickle: “People of all ages [these days] are more last-minute. In the past, arts organizations were used to selling subscriptions six months ahead of time and knew they had a base audience. Today, arts organizations host events and don’t know who is coming.” That affects the economics of putting on exhibits and events. “If you can’t predict who your audience could be, you might be reluctant to book expensive acts. The economics are more important today because it is hard to predict the revenue.”
In addition, today’s audiences want more for their money. “The community is saying it’s not enough to have a performance. They want to have an experience. They want to have a drink, a way to participate, or give an opinion,” she says. “We have to find new ways people can interact with culture and the arts. That is a challenge.”
Mickelson agrees that it’s critical to look for “new and innovative ways to be more relevant to our community — more participatory and interactive.” HVMOCA also needs to find new earned and unearned revenue sources, she says. To do that, they have to figure out how to grow programs and events, and, therefore, their audience.
For Gitlitz and the Katonah Museum of Art, the top-of-mind challenge right now is the ever-more-competitive landscape, with more nonprofits competing for limited pools of private and public funding, and the many entertainment options that can draw people away from museums and cultural sites.
He also thinks a lot about “marketing and brand awareness in an increasingly large and fractured media market,” and the lack of hotels, inns, and B&Bs in Upper Westchester, “making it difficult for visitors to come from farther away and stay for a few days.”
“Our patrons pay to park; they eat dinner at one of the many restaurants in the immediate area; many of them shop at the stores in City Center; then they attend our performance — all bringing money into Westchester County.”
—Kathleen Davisson, General Manager, White Plains Performing Arts Center
ChappPAC needs to focus on fundraising, Gregson says: “We ended 2019 on a promising note. We are forming collaborations and putting together our spring lineup, so we can ask for sponsorships.” ChappPAC is also applying for grants to make capital improvements (a large grant for facility improvements is pending). “In the past, we had to rent things our acts would like, like good sound systems for anything musical. That becomes very expensive,” she explains.
One challenge all arts organizations face is the “graying” of their core audience and the changing needs and desires of Millennials, whom they need to survive in order to move forward. “Historically, our average patron was a middle-aged white woman who bought tickets for herself and her family,” Davisson admits. “We have worked hard to keep this base while engaging new theatergoers, including men, young adults, and minorities, by offering more diverse programming.”
That includes rock musicals, comedy nights, and concerts. In addition, “Young adults like edgy, new-age productions, which we also offer during our season. This programming has attracted an enthusiastic, young audience base,” she says, while more familiar Broadway shows still appeal to adult members and musical theater maintains its popularity with seniors.
“We are definitely thinking about how to tap into the younger audiences,” Mickelson agrees. “Individuals, especially younger ones, are looking to experience more from arts and culture destinations. We are developing new programming and events that are more interactive, thought-provoking, and at the same time, more social and fun.”
Though each organization faces its challenges alone, they all relish the vibrant arts-and-cultural community they belong to. “Having strong and well-known cultural institutions creates not just a wonderful asset for the immediate community but also an enormous draw for visitors from farther away,” Gitlitz says. “Having mature and respected institutions, such as Katonah Museum of Art, Caramoor, Jacob Burns Film Center, Bedford Playhouse, John Jay Homestead, and many others, can create a cultural whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” Gitlitz reiterates that only a shortage of lodging choices is holding people back from coming to Upper Westchester, “to see the wide variety of cultural offerings, just as they do in the Berkshires.”
For Gregson, arts and culture are about more than just dollars and cents. “With creation and innovation, the ultimate economic value is not in the numbers but rather the overall impact on how America competes in the world. We are not a manufacturing society anymore. The one thing we do have is ideas. That is what is driving the economy right now.”
Westchester County is, in many ways, benefiting greatly from that. “This county,” Gregson says, “understands the value of the arts.”
Freelance writer David Levine is a frequent contributor to 914INC.