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Baltimore's art community paints a pretty picture of the Baltimore economy

Fluid Movement's Jason and the Aquanauts 20,000 Legs Over The Sea - Arianne Teeple
Fluid Movement's Jason and the Aquanauts 20,000 Legs Over The Sea - Arianne Teeple

In the three years or so since J. Buck Jabaily and his theatrical cohorts settled in Baltimore, their theater troupe, Single Carrot Theater, has grown enough to support one full-time and two part-time positions.Add that economic contribution, Jabaily notes, to the contributions from the 10 who moved here -- that's 10 people who relocated to an art-friendly city, got jobs and now pay taxes, and a couple of whom bought houses.

If the Single Carrot Theater represents the small cultural organizations with modest (but growing) budgets, there are also the heavyweights, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Yet each arts and cultural institution employs area residents, sells admission tickets and entices tourists -- pumping money directly into Baltimore's economy and inspiring residents to volunteer and patronize the arts.

"I think the arts are an important part of every thriving city," says Jabaily, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA). "It raises the reputation of the city, too. When you go into a city that doesn't have culture, it's a noticeable absence."

Creative providers

New data illuminates for the first time just how profound the economic impact is of the city's 150+ non-profit arts and cultural institutions. Released in June, GBCA's  Art is Everywhere in Baltimore report compiles statistics from the Cultural Data Project, an online management tool operated by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which allows state organizations to compare, analyze and track programmatic and financial data.

"It helps us make a case for support of the arts," Jabaily says of the report. Maryland's state and local governments have been historically supportive of the arts, he adds, but tight budgets have of course meant competing priorities and inevitable cuts.

According to the report, however, the arts and culture community in Baltimore contributes more than $148 million annually in direct expenditures to the local economy. The sector employs 9,625 people, with salaries totaling $64.4 million. Individual ticket sales at performing arts and other cultural venues in 2008 topped more than $11.2 million and their retail gift shops brought in another $2.06 million.

Added to that are the 18,200 people who volunteer and the 723,206 school children who visit local arts and culture venues each year, and it's clear that the creative sector is serious business.

Making the case for support

Data like this helps advocates demonstrate that music, arts, and cultural investments bring more than quality of life benefits to a city's residents, but have a major economic impact as well, Jabaily says.

In the report accompanying the data, former GBCA executive director Nancy Haragan and Doreen Bolger, BMA director and GBCA board member, contend that Baltimore's arts and culture sector could become a model for economic cooperation in central Maryland: "By applying compelling resources and energy to highlighting the breadth and depth of the arts and culture sector, the city of Baltimore can demonstrate the significance of its role as a resource and its importance as a compelling economic development attractor leader for the growing and robust population in the surrounding counties."

The effort to quantify the economic impact of the city's arts community began as part of GBCA's push to find ways to convince regional political leaders for the need for arts funding, Haragan says. Baltimore has an emerging arts and culture scene, she continues, but increasingly, traditional sources of public funding aren't available.

The city's marketing efforts are supported by a hotel tax, Haragin notes, so why not have a dedicated arts tax? Sure, that's a hard sell politically, she concedes, but at least this data can help show political leaders and residents alike the financial benefits of the arts.

"It's important for us to get this message out," she says, adding that the organization hopes to update this data every two years. 

An invigorating affect

The financial benefits for the city come from more than ticket sales and gift shop receipts. In a perhaps less tangible measure, the arts community is a source of revitalization for the city.

"We have this influx of young, ambitious, interesting, creative people," says Bolger. "If we were going to imagine who we want to recruit to reinvigorate a community, it would be them."

Artists tend to be among the first to move to a new neighborhood, particularly areas that may be in decline, where they can take advantage of affordable studio space and housing, she says. A prime example is the Station North Arts District. They also tend to engage themselves in the community, Bolger says, volunteering and connecting with other local organizations.

"As the neighborhoods become reclaimed and more vibrant, those neighborhoods become more viable," she says.

Of course, many of the artists have day or night jobs to support themselves, both working and living in the city. "There are more people here because of it, and that generates business," Bolger continues.

If they come, others will build it

A rich arts presence can also be a factor in encouraging new development, both for the artists and for residents and businesses that see the proximity of the arts community as an added bonus for the area, says Joe McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, a community development organization.

In Station North, for example, the proximity to public transportation and downtown was a main force behind the redevelopment, and "it has the extra added attraction for being an artists' area," McNeely says. That's why the newly completed Fitzgerald building, an apartment and retail building next to the Lyric Opera House built by Bozzuto, is already so popular. The apartments are renting out at a rapid clip, and they aren't low-rent artist or student housing, McNeely says.

But at the same time as the arts district encourages luxury apartments and retail, a balance must be struck to ensure accessible and affordable housing is built for those residents � mainly the artists � who were originally living in the neighborhood, he says. One example of this is the City Arts Apartments in Station North, which has live-work studio space for more affordable rates.

McNeely notes that it's not as easy as simply having an arts presence to spur economic revitalization. It takes other neighborhood attractions, such as the transportation, and the residents and organizations investing in the community. "It's all these forces working together," he says.

Seeing places in a  different light

The arts' ability to pump energy into a neighborhood was evident in the rebirth of the Highlandtown/Patterson Park neighborhood. Ten years ago, housing and community development organizations struggled to draw residents into the area, which had a sketchy, high-crime reputation, recalls Will Backstrom, community development banking territory manager for PNC Bank, who at the time worked at a non-profit housing organization.

The landscape began to change in large part due to the creation of Fluid Movement, a small performance art group, which moved to the neighborhood to perform water ballets. The group, plus the efforts of the Creative Alliance and Friends of Patterson Park, generated positive press about the area, helping to renew interests in the neighborhood.

"This was that sort of feather that tipped the scale," Backstrom says. "That type of relatively inexpensive activity is absolutely good business for Baltimore."

PNC now sponsors a concert series in Patterson Park, as well as other smaller arts and culture programming as a way to spur revitalization. "It's demonstrated that arts programming brings forth the strengthening of the neighborhood," he says, adding, "It's also good business."

Word is clearly getting out that Baltimore is an art-friendly city, and the Single Carrot Theater just shows how the reputation can attract new talent and residents, says Randi Vega, director of cultural affairs at the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

"Success breeds success," Vega says. "That encourages other people to try something new or to step out with new work or a new idea . . . when the buzz gets started, it just grows and feeds on itself."

Sara Michael, who lives in Remington, is a writer and editor who has written about health, science and technology.

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Fluid Movement's Jason and the Aquanauts 20,000 Legs Over The Sea at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Photos by Arianne Teeple

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