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Can a city make money on art?

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Last year, more than 60 cultural organizations and 70 galleries hooked up to commemorate 35 years of L.A. art between 1945 and 1980. It was called Pacific Standard Time. The initiative spanned six months and events took place all over Southern California. Pacific Standard Time was as sprawling as the city it celebrated. So how do you measure the economic impact of something like that?

“I remember the first time I was taken to a museum, I was in kindergarten,” says Luis De Jesus. His gallery, Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, is one of the 70 that participated in Pacific Standard Time. He recounts the first time he experienced art and how it changed his life.

“I remember being led,” he says, “with my classroom, everyone holding hands and seeing this huge painting of this giant lion kind of leaping out at me and I was so struck by that, I was like, ‘oh my god!'”

De Jesus isn’t sure you can put a price tag on the hundreds of thousands of ‘oh my god’ moments that Pacific Standard Time events sparked all over town. According to the economic impact study released today, 1.8 million visitors came to Southern California’s museums and galleries just for Pacific Standard Time. That’s potentially a lot of ‘oh my god!’

Jim Cuno, the president and CEO of the J Paul Getty Trust, launched the sprawling initiative that took 10 years of research and preparation.

“People began to ask us ‘well what’s going to be the impact of this project?'” Cuno says. “To which we always answered there’s going to be new scholarship developed, its going to be disseminated broadly through publications and online and lots of people are going to come to exhibitions and learn about this great artistic legacy that was endangered.” He adds that the next thing people would ask is, “What difference is this going to make in the local economy?”

The unemployment rate in Los Angeles during Pacific Standard Time was 12 percent, much higher than the national average. How to create jobs was the obsession, not how to celebrate art history. So, the Getty had an outside organization crunch the numbers.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation looked at 31 nonprofit cultural institutions that took part in Pacific Standard Time. Each detailed how many employees they hired, how much they spent on printing, on construction supplies, and food. Add visitor spending to that, and Christine Cooper, an economist who worked on the study, says, “From an economic point of view of course it was a good thing. We determined that the visitor spending and the institutional spending generated $280 million of economic output for the region and about 2,500 jobs.”

Cuno, the CEO of the J Paul Getty Trust says, yes, those numbers are good, but he wants to caution people not to confuse the benefits of the arts with the economics of the arts.

“They’re not the same,” says Cuno, “but they do co-exist.”

He says the goal for the project was to expose Southern California and beyond to home-grown artistic excellence. He’s so happy, Pacific Standard Time part two is already in the works.

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