New Report Shows Growing Economic Impact Of Arts In New Hanover County

By Jenny Callison, posted Oct 31, 2023
Arts Council director Rhonda Bellamy shares highlights of a new arts economic impact study at the Wilson Center Monday. (Photo by Jenny Callison)
The arts economies of North Carolina, including that of New Hanover County, are outpacing that of the nation as a whole.

That’s from the just-released Americans for the Arts study that surveyed 373 diverse communities and regions across the United States and Puerto Rico about spending related to music, the performing arts and the visual arts. 
Findings from Arts & Economic Prosperity 6: The Economic and Social Impact Study of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences in New Hanover County were announced Monday by Rhonda Bellamy, director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, and Jeff Bell, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council. Bellamy pointed out that the study, referred to as AEP6, surveyed only nonprofit arts organizations – so no for-profit galleries or theaters were included – and the price of event tickets was not counted toward measuring economic impact. The data are from the 2022 calendar year.
More than 1.2 million people attended arts events in New Hanover County that year, and nearly 39% of them came from outside the county; some even from out of state, Bellamy said. Their total event-related expenditures – again, excluding the price of their event ticket – totaled more than $56.3 million. In fact, audience members at nonprofit arts and cultural events spent an average of nearly $45 per event on food and drink, retail purchases, lodging, local transportation, child care and other items, the study shows.
Those expenditures, plus the nearly $19.3 million spent by presenting organizations to stage the events, add up to almost $75.6 million, which supported 1,285 jobs with a combined local payroll of more than $40.2 million.
Local, state and federal tax coffers benefited from New Hanover’s 2022 arts expenditures: local tax revenue was nearly $1.4 million; North Carolina realized just over $2 million in tax revenue; the federal government added more than $8 million as a result of arts and cultural activity in the county.
Surveying the statewide picture, Bell said that the arts’ economic impact in North Carolina was $2.23 billion, up 5% from 2015, when the last AEP6 study was done. Of that amount, $1.05 billion was spent by the presenting organizations, creating 38,000 full-time jobs.
“Several of the years [since 2015] were a challenge,” he said, noting that increased spending by audiences and organizations happened despite the significant damper on in-person events imposed by the COVID pandemic.
“North Carolina was a bright spot,” Bell said. “In the nation overall, there was a 7% decline in the arts’ economic impact. Many other regions are struggling.”
The reason that North Carolina outshone many of its counterpart states, Bell continued, could be attributed in part to increased spending by arts organizations, with money flowing to many of them through the state arts council grants, distributed in turn by local arts councils. Where did this increase come from?
“Leadership by our state legislature and our governor,” Bell said. “They allocated a larger percentage of COVID money to the arts than many other states did.”
The state director said that Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center, partially funded through local bonds, is an example of a facility that has proved “transformational,” allowing audiences from near and far to “share experiences that make life richer,” he said.
“People come to our state, enjoy the beach and see a show,” Bell continued. “New Hanover County as a whole exemplifies . . . the joy and sense of community” people feel by being part of arts and cultural experiences.
The study also tried to capture several intangible ways that arts organizations and facilities contribute to their communities. People surveyed in New Hanover County demonstrated the value they saw, by agreeing in large measure to the following statements:
  • “This venue or facility is an important pillar for me within my community.” 76.8% agreement 
  • “I would feel a great sense of loss if this activity or venue were no longer available.” 80.4% agreement 
  • “This activity or venue is inspiring a sense of pride in this neighborhood or community.” 84.2% agreement
  • “My attendance is my way of ensuring that this activity or venue is preserved for future generations.” 80.9% agreement.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo spoke of the impact that the Wilson Center and the city’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion have had on the local economy as well as the city’s draw as a destination. He noted that on one night recently, there were sold-out performances at the pavilion, the Wilson Center and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
“The creation of jobs and companies moving here go hand in hand with arts activity,” he said. “People ask, ‘What is there to do in Wilmington?’ Our future is extremely bright.”
The report is “encouraging on many levels,” said Liz Scanlon, executive director of the Wilmington Symphony, after hearing the report highlights Monday. “It’s important that our city council, mayor and county commissioners realize [nonprofit arts organizations] bring in a lot of revenue. The numbers tell our city council members and county commissioners that we are a valuable part of the economy.”

Asked what she would like to see in the next seven years, Bellamy said the area needs a new medium-sized performance venue, even as demand accelerates for existing spaces, from Kenan Auditorium to the Wilson Center to Thalian Hall and several small venues.
“I would like our marketing to expand to draw audience members from Raleigh, the Triangle and Charlotte,” she added. “I’d like more funding for artists’ professional development, and I’d like to see some funding from the New Hanover Community Endowment.”
Information on the 2023 AEP6 as a whole can be found here.
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