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How the arts power Sarasota's economy

Local growth in arts spending has outpaced national levels by 25% since 2015, a new study finds.

Sarasota's Circus Arts Conservatory trains the next generation of circus artists, shown here performing in the Sailor Circus.
Sarasota's Circus Arts Conservatory trains the next generation of circus artists, shown here performing in the Sailor Circus.
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Sarasota's arts and cultural organizations took a well-deserved bow at the Sarasota Opera House Oct. 12 as the Arts and Cultural Alliance unveiled the results of a survey that demonstrates their powerful impact on the local economy and how local arts spending is outpacing the national trend.

The evening opened with a selection from Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment" performed by members of the Sarasota Opera and closed with a performance by artists from contemporary classical music group EnsembleNewSRQ, giving the packed house a taste of Sarasota's cultural breadth. 

Even statistics are served up with a sampling of the arts in Florida's "Cultural Coast," where local arts groups are celebrating milestone anniversaries such as the Sarasota Orchestra's 75th season and Florida Studio Theatre's 50th. Meanwhile, Arts Center Sarasota and the Sarasota Players are closing in on 100 years in Sarasota.

The real showstopper of the evening was the numbers presented by Arts and Cultural Alliance President and CEO Brian Hersh. In 2022, the year covered by the latest Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 survey, or AEP6 for short, 2.3 million people attended arts and cultural events in Sarasota County. That's not too shabby for a county that the U.S. Census Bureau estimated had 447,057 residents in 2021, the last year for which numbers are available. 

The total annual economic impact of the arts in Sarasota County was estimated at an eye-popping $342 million, up 16% from 2015, the last year of the AEP survey. When it comes to growth, Sarasota County leaves the national arts competition in the dust. Nationally, the total economic impact of nonprofit arts and cultural expenditures declined 8.78% from 2015. For those doing the math at home, that's a differential of roughly 25%.

Although many of the slides presented at the Opera House focused on the differences locally and nationally between 2022 and 2015, Hersh of the Arts Alliance noted that Sarasota's arts scene has rebounded more quickly from the pandemic than the national trend. 

He pointedly declined to speculate whether the fact that lockdowns were less severe in Florida than other places could have deterred audiences from settling into the streaming habit at home. 

But he did note that while national arts attendance is down between 25% and 33% since the pandemic, it has declined just 6.5% in Sarasota County, according to the Arts Alliance's research.

Of the total economic activity generated by the arts in Sarasota County, $235.9 million was the result of direct spending by arts and culture organizations. An additional $106.8 million came from event-related spending by audiences in Sarasota, Venice and other places.

In Sarasota County, as of 2022, the arts supported 5,262 jobs, provided $229.4 million in personal income to residents and generated $68.1 million in tax revenue for local, state and federal government.

The roughly $107 million that arts attendees spent on dining, hotels and parking in 2022 was 14.3% higher than in 2015, the last year of the national AEP survey. By contrast, audience spending declined 23.5% nationally in the same period.

As might be expected, visitors spend more per arts event than locals, who can grab a bite at home before heading out to a show.

The average event-related spending per person for an arts patron was $46.21, not including admission or ticket prices, for all attendees in 2022. Out-of-towners shelled out $60.13 on incidentals like parking and a drink after the show each time they attended an arts event while locals spent an average of $33.60 per event.

Attendance at local arts and cultural events in Sarasota County was roughly evenly divided between locals and out-of-towners (that includes Naples as well as New York), at 52.5% vs. 47.5%.

Yes, it's official: We're an artsy crowd here in Florida's "Cultural Coast," a name that has been trademarked. In the local part of AEP6, 90.6% of arts attendees said "they would feel a great sense of loss if these events or venue were no longer available." 

Of arts attendees surveyed in Sarasota County, 91.4% said "the event they are attending inspires a sense of pride in the neighborhood or community."

In his remarks to the audience, Sarasota Opera General Director Richard Russell told a perhaps apocryphal story about a couple that was planning to retire to Naples but changed their mind after stopping to see a show in Sarasota. 

"Maybe they should put up a sign on I-75" outside Sarasota that says you've reached your destination, he joked.

Bearing out the importance of the arts in attracting visitors to Sarasota County, 65.6% of nonlocal attendees reported the primary purpose of their visit was specifically to attend the event where they were surveyed.

That's one of the reasons that Visit Sarasota promotes the area as an arts destination, said Erin Duggan, CEO of the tourism group.

At the presentation, Erin Silk, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation, shared an anecdote about a young tech entrepreneur who changed his mind about where to base his startup after learning about Sarasota's vibrant cultural scene.

A thriving arts community also keeps the county's residents from traveling to other places (We see you, Tampa!) to get their culture fix. When attendees were asked what they would have done if the event where they were surveyed had not been available, 51.2% of attendees who live in the county said they would have "traveled to a different community to attend a similar arts or cultural activity."

AEP6 was conducted by Americans for the Arts, an arts advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. In an effort to make the latest research more inclusive than in the past, when it focused on large-budget organizations presenting mainly works of European culture, AEP6 surveyed a more diverse universe of cultural groups this time around.

To be sure, the Sarasota arts economy still faces challenges despite its blockbuster growth. Hersh noted the need to pay artists livable wages and the shortage of affordable housing. These obstacles can deter creative types from moving or staying here, he said at the Sarasota Opera House event, which was sponsored by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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