Playhouse Square during the Christmas holiday season.
Playhouse Square during the Christmas holiday season. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp / 28karatblack

If you’re attending an arts or cultural event in Cuyahoga County in the next several months, don’t be surprised if volunteers invite you to complete a survey that includes asking what you spent in connection with attending the event.

They’re not being nosey. The volunteers are part of a national effort to document the economic impact of the arts locally and then use these findings as leverage to increase government and other funding for arts.

For the first time, Cuyahoga County will be included in the national economic impact study done every five years by Americans for the Arts, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on building “recognition and support” for the arts. The county will be among nearly 400 communities nationally that will participate in the Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 (AEP6) study. 

The study will be based on an economic analysis drawing from government data, including some from the federal Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce. The study will also include survey results from attendees at local arts and cultural events such as plays, concerts and dance performances.

The goal is to collect 850 surveys from Cuyahoga County, said Deidre McPherson, chief community officer at Assembly for the Arts, which advocates for increasing resources for the arts in Greater Cleveland. The arts council worked to have Cuyahoga included in the study. Assembly volunteers began collecting surveys in September and will continue through April. So far, she said, theater and concert goers and other attendees at arts and cultural events have been enthusiastic about completing surveys after learning of their importance.

“We’re having the conversation that this data is really valuable, that we really need these responses and how powerful it is going to be in helping us advocate for the arts,” she said.  

Economic impact of the arts

The last national study, AEP5, released in 2017, found that arts and cultural organizations generated $63.8 billion nationally in spending and an additional $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. That study found that the typical arts attendee spent $31.47 per person, per event, beyond the cost of admission. This could include everything from buying souvenirs to paying for a babysitter or getting a new outfit to attend the event. One survey taker, a farmer, even put down having to pay someone $60 to milk the cows in order for him to attend an event, said Randy Cohen, vice president of research at Americans for the Arts, who was recently in Cleveland discussing the study. He said Cuyahoga’s numbers will be released with the study in October.

“When most people think of the arts, they say something like, ‘It’s the holidays, we’re all going to go see ‘Nutcracker’ and  ‘Hamilton,’” he said. “But arts organizations employ people locally, they purchase goods and services from other businesses and people throughout the community. 

“This is a mythbuster for people,” Cohen said. “They just don’t think of arts organizations like any other business.”

Cohen said past studies “had under-represented BIPOC, Black, Indigenous and people of color organizations.” He said Americans for the Arts had worked with “researchers, equity consultants and others to make sure we are being as inclusive as possible” with AEP6. 

Cohen said AEP6 is the largest study of its kind. Assembly is the reason Cuyahoga is being included for the first time, even though the study has been conducted  since the 1990s. It might have been just a matter of asking to be included.

Assembly President and CEO Jeremy Johnson pushed for Cuyahoga to be included because he saw the impact the study’s findings had had while he was an arts leader in New Jersey. Johnson said he was able to persuade local public officials there to increase resources for the arts after they saw their potential economic impact. He intends to use AEP6 data the same way here.

Like we’re a sports town, and we’ve got all the big sports, we’ve got all the arts represented. We have literary arts, culinary arts, dance, movement, performing arts, everything within that bucket of visual arts. You name it, they’re well represented.

Deidre McPherson, chief community officer at Assembly for the Arts

“It’s data that we can put in front of the elected officials to say that arts and culture mean business, and here are the numbers to show it,” he said. “It’s ammunition for us as an arts council to prove that we’re generating jobs.” 

Cohen said most communities who want to participate in the study are included. Each is assessed an amount to help cover the cost of doing the study. Assembly paid $3,275 for Cuyahoga to participate.

Cohen said there was no hesitation to include Cuyahoga in AEP6. Cleveland is home to arts institutions with national and international renown, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra. Playhouse Square is the second largest theater district after Broadway. Karamu is the country’s oldest operating Black theater.

McPherson said it doesn’t stop there.

“Like we’re a sports town, and we’ve got all the big sports, we’ve got all the arts represented,” she said. “We have literary arts, culinary arts, dance, movement, performing arts, everything within that bucket of visual arts. You name it, they’re well represented.” 

Community input for study important

The 12-question survey, which can only be completed by attendees at designated arts and cultural events, takes a few minutes to complete, McPherson said. Questions include the total amount a person spent to attend the event, from ticket cost to paying for food and drink and parking. The survey also asks demographic questions and solicits opinions about the event and venue. Attendees can either complete the survey online by scanning a QR code or on paper.

“We’ve had people worried about confidentiality and anonymity,” said Cohen. “Can we trace the data back [to participants]? We can’t.” 

McPherson said volunteers are needed to help Assembly collect the 850 surveys. 

“If you enjoy advocating for the arts and talking with people, please complete this volunteer interest form,” she wrote in an email. “You’ll be added to an email list announcing details for future online volunteer trainings and upcoming arts and culture events that we will need volunteers to collect surveys at.”

The next training sessions are set for 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Jan. 5.  Details will be posted on Assembly’s website,

Organizations that would like their events to be considered may complete this form.

“The only criteria are that they are a non-profit arts and cultural organization, they’re willing to allow Assembly to have a table at an upcoming public event [free or ticketed], and they are willing to have their audience and organization surveyed,” McPherson wrote.

Olivera Perkins, Economics Reporter

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.