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Art and culture proving their worth

Study looks at how six Framingham nonprofits create jobs and help spur local spending

Anne Murphy of the Framingham History Center, and others, hope the impact report will aid fund-raising. Anne Murphy of the Framingham History Center, and others, hope the impact report will aid fund-raising. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2010

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Each year, 30,000 people visit the Danforth Museum of Art. Hundreds of youths participate in its free school programs, thousands of all ages enroll in art classes, and still more view exhibitions.

With this kind of score card, the Danforth finds it easy to convince the community of its value as a cultural asset.

But an economic engine?

A newly released study suggests that the Danforth and five other Framingham cultural institutions generate nearly double their budgets in local spending annually, creating scores of jobs along the way.

“For people who believe in the arts, they get it when we tell them art is good because we know it’s good,’’ said Danforth’s executive director, Katherine French. “But that’s preaching to the converted. When we go to funders or business leaders or town officials, we need to be able to point to an argument that isn’t a matter of opinion.’’

So, the Danforth and five other Framingham cultural organizations — Amazing Things Arts Center, Framingham History Center, Framingham Public Library, Garden in the Woods, and Performing Arts Center of MetroWest — united for an economic impact study paid for by the Sudbury Foundation. It was no academic exercise.

All six organizations are in the midst of, or are gearing up for, fund-raising campaigns to improve their facilities and ultimately make Framingham a tourist destination. They say proof of the jobs and business they create cinches their argument for financial support — especially during tough economic times.

“Most of us are in aging town buildings. For instance, the History Center has three buildings on the common that are all in serious disrepair that need to be renovated,’’ said Anne Murphy, executive director of the Framingham History Center. “At the same time, the START Partnership, which we are all members of, is working together to make Framingham a destination. We have a pilot program to draw people from across the state and New England to Framingham during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War coming up in 2011.’’

With the report in hand, all six hope potential contributors will better see the full worth of the institutions’ plans, both cultural and economic. “These studies are helpful because it’s important to remind people that arts and cultural organizations, like most nonprofits, are actually economic engines,’’ said Debbi Edelstein, executive director of New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods. “We’re small businesses, and as small businesses we have the same impact as other small businesses. We hire people, we rent or buy space, and we purchase goods and services in the community.’’

The six groups hired Concord consulting firm Carlisle & Co. to conduct the START Partnership Economic Impact Study, and results were released in January. In part, the findings codified what those from the six study organizations already knew.

Together, they have a combined annual operating budget of $6.3 million, which they spend mostly locally. They also support 87 full-time equivalent jobs. In short, their numbers would make any small to mid-size business proud.

But then, the study goes on to measure the nonprofits’ broader financial impact. When these ripples are counted, the report says the groups actually generate $11.4 million yearly — or nearly double their own budgets — in local spending. The lion’s share of that impact, $4.1 million, is generated by the Framingham Public Library’s two branches.

“We’ve become more of a cultural institution,’’ said the library’s director, Mark Contois. “We host over 700 programs per year such as Friday films and Sunday concerts.’’

If spending levels hold steady, the study says the full economic impact of the six Framingham nonprofits will create $127 million in local spending and 2,004 jobs over the next 10 years. If the six organizations carry out their planned $20 million in renovations over the next decade, that investment would trigger another $36 million in area spending, and also create 537 more jobs, according to the study.

The renovations range from necessities, such as a new heating plant for the Danforth, to projects that will expand services and draw more patrons. Among them, the Performing Arts Center hopes to install wood floors in a second rehearsal room, which would increase the number of classes it can offer. Garden in the Woods intends to increase comfortable seating, offer refreshments, and expand its gift shop. The History Center has ambitious plans, still under wraps, to transform itself into a significant cultural destination. Each hopes the START Partnership study will help them meet those goals.

“In this day and age when arts are being cut, we have to point out that we have a greater importance than just a social impact,’’ said Sherry Anderson, executive director of the Performing Arts Center of MetroWest. “We need to show we are good places to invest. We don’t just help a child to learn to play guitar, we do so much more.’’

Business owners in Beverly, where the North Shore Music Theatre folded in January 2009, say they don’t need a report to tell them the arts impact their earnings. After the theater’s closing, both the local Chamber of Commerce and downtown development organization Beverly Main Streets heard complaints of a drop-off in business. Most came from restaurant owners.

“When North Shore closed it really [affected] us,’’ said Laura Wolf, general manager of Beverly’s Wild Horse Cafe. “The theater brought in not only people from miles around for shows. A lot of actors and people that worked at the theater used to come here as well. So it was a really good thing for the community to have the theater going. It kept the downtown on people’s minds even when shows were not running.’’

North Shore is under new ownership and will reopen this month.

The START study results may prove to be of use to more than the six organizations in the report. “All of this information is very helpful and we’re in the midst of a long-term analysis plan and initiative to do some downtown improvements and this will be an important piece of information that will assist us in that regard among a number of others,’’ said Framingham’s town manager, Julian Suso. “It’s all about working together.’’

State Senator Karen Spilka, who recently introduced a jobs bill to the state Legislature that includes a proposal for a MetroWest Tourism and Visitors Bureau, also indicated the study results will add heft to her argument.

She said it “can be used very easily as backup information as to the positive impact the creative arts bring to the area and why we need our own tourism and visitors bureau.’’

Advocates for the arts say recognition of the impact of the creative economy is overdue. “In the past, we’ve often separated cultural organizations as if they were separate from the flow of the economy,’’ said Dan Hunter, a nonprofit consultant and former director of Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities.

“One of my favorite stories about the Museum of Fine Arts is that when the Boston Redevelopment Authority did a survey of the city’s largest employers in 2002, they didn’t even ask the MFA. And if you look at the survey of the top 25 employers, in 2002 the MFA would have ranked 13th. The BRA never even thought to look at that,’’ he said.

“That is one of the key aspects of this: It’s breaking down the silos that say this is nonprofit, this is for profit, this is schools, this is higher ed. They all interact and they are all part of the economy.’’