Arts and culture impact study underway for Aspen’s economy

A cadre of businesses, government and arts organizations have commissioned a yearlong study to determine the economic impact that arts and culture have on Aspen and its surrounding area.

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) has taken the lead on the effort and has hired Boulder-based RRC Associates for $63,000 to do the work.

The price tag is being split among ACRA, the city of Aspen and 13 area arts and cultural nonprofit organizations, with the chamber paying $31,000 for its portion.

The city is kicking in $10,000 and the remaining will be split among the arts organizations, which will pay between $500 and $1,000 each, according to ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun.

The last economic study of the arts in Aspen and Snowmass was done in 2004, which estimated that its impact is nearly $85 million a year. That includes expenditures by the arts organizations and their audiences.

In that study, conducted by the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, an additional 84 arts-related organizations from Aspen and Snowmass were estimated to contribute 400 full-time jobs and $23 million to the local economy.

Braun said she thinks those figures are far higher 15 years later as the arts and cultural offerings here have grown to a year-round industry.

“I think it might rival winter and the skiing industry,” she said, adding that no one has any idea how much it drives the local economy, whether it’s job creation, tourism, real estate sales or international exposure. “It’s going to be huge.”

A big aspect of the study will be RRC’s census research that will capture how many people work in the arts and culture sector and how many workers can be accounted for in industry-related businesses.

“RRC is going to do a deep dive on that,” Braun said, adding this study will include nonprofit organizations as well as for-profit businesses like art galleries and the Belly Up nightclub that books bands almost on a nightly basis. “We are getting a fuller understanding of the landscape.”

For-profit arts and cultural organizations have not previously been studied, she noted.

The primary methodology to conduct the analysis will include attendee and visitor research, census data, operational economic impacts, community non-monetary impacts and benefits, and an assessment of other organizations and performance venues.

RRC is currently doing interviews with individual arts organization as a jumping off point.

RRC’s census work will coincide with ACRA’s visitor survey at the Brush Creek Park and Ride this summer where the chamber hopes to learn the primary reasons of why people are coming here.

“Is it arts and culture first as an activity or is recreation the driver?” Braun said. “Overlaying these surveys will be really good.”

Aspen City Council batted around the idea a year ago of appointing a task force to explore the status of the cultural arts and get a community conversation going.

Council was supportive of an industry analysis but it didn’t earmark any money toward the effort.

Then the arts and culture community approached ACRA, who grabbed the ball and ran with it.

“There was an opportunity for the arts community to rally itself to get involved in this and the chamber did a phenomenal job taking this over,” said Sara Ott, interim city manager, adding she didn’t want the process to be government-driven.

However, the arts and cultural industry can be impacted by government’s decisions, so defining what its role is in the arts would better guide policymaking, Ott noted.

And perhaps more importantly, it’s crucial to understand how much the local economy is reliant on arts and culture as a draw for visitors.

“I’m concerned that we maintain our competitive edge here,” Ott said. “If we go too long without looking into this, we will have other communities catching up to us.”

Having hard data will help nonprofits raise funds and allow local governments to support the arts and culture industry in a bigger and better way, Braun said.

“We have this amazing asset and if you walk around town as a visitor, would you know that?” she said. “We think no.”


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