Study: Aspen’s arts and cultural industry generated $451M for community last year

Economic output throughout Pitkin County was a significant percentage of jobs, spending

The results of a recent study of the area’s arts and culture organizations show that the industry generated hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy last year.

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association, the city of Aspen and a dozen arts and cultural nonprofit organizations, commissioned the economic impact study, which cost $63,000.

The 63-page report, provided by RRC Associates and the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business, was released this week and presented Tuesday at ACRA’s board meeting.

The study shows that in 2019, arts and cultural activities are estimated to have directly or indirectly supported 2,831 year-round jobs in Pitkin County, and generated approximately $451 million in economic output, including $167 million in labor income.

“We’ve known how important the arts and culture community is, as a fabric and a portion of our community and what it means for tourism overall, and what it means for the dynamics in our community,” said ACRA board chair Donnie Lee. “It’s highly informative and certainly substantiates and confirms everything we kind of anecdotally known.”

The study has been two years in the making, ever since Aspen City Council batted around the idea of appointing a task force to explore the status of the cultural arts in the upper valley to try to get a sense of its impact on the economy and community.

Several executives who run the largest arts organizations in the area have approached elected officials, asking them to pay more attention to the industry.

During an April 2018 council meeting on the issue, leaders of some of the town’s most high-profile nonprofit organizations said they feel like they were sitting at the equivalent of the kids’ table at a family holiday dinner.

“It may seem evident to you as a city and council … how valuable the arts are … but actually out there that’s not the case, at least that’s not the perception of it and our perception is that the city can actually do a little bit more to embrace that message,” Jim Horowitz, president and CEO of Jazz-Aspen Snowmass, said at the time.

The conversation eventually led to the group, championed by ACRA, to commission the report.

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

In that study, conducted by the 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.

In the current economic impact study, arts and culture activity is estimated to have directly or indirectly accounted for approximately 12% of the Pitkin County economy in 2019, including supporting nearly 12% of the county’s jobs and almost 13% of the county’s economic output, value added and labor income.


The study examined four categories of economic impact that result from local arts and cultural activities.

Those included the operations of 12 Aspen and Snowmass arts and cultural organizations; how much is spent by audience attendees in the community; other businesses and organizations involved with arts and cultural production; and second home purchase decisions influenced by arts and culture.

David Becher of RRC Associates said attendees of local events spent a collective $92 million last year in the community, which is much higher than what was determined in the 2004 study.

“Grand total spending has essentially doubled in real terms,” he told the ACRA board.

That was music to the ears of Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival.

“The arts are more important to us than to other mountain communities, which sets us apart in that sector and much more significant statewide or nationwide and that’s a really important finding,” he said. “The fact that we have doubled our impact over the past 16 or 17 years is a big takeaway for me.”

Pitkin County had a 33% higher concentration of jobs in arts and culture than Colorado, and a 47% higher concentration than the U.S as a whole, according to the study.

Becher said based on in-person surveys conducted in the summer by ACRA and in the winter by the Aspen Skiing Co., half of the respondents who were second home owners reported that one of their main motivations in buying property here was because of the area’s arts and cultural offerings.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are roughly 5,000 second homes in Pitkin County, which is about 35% of the total residences here.

On average, 2,000 jobs are generated for those 5,000 homes, or 1.4 workers per residence, according to the study.

The research team conducted two local surveys, including an arts attendee survey, with a total of 3,317 responses collected from June 2019 through February 2020, and an organizational operations survey of each of the participating organizations.

The organizations included Anderson Ranch Arts Center; Aspen Art Museum; Aspen Center for Environmental Studies; Aspen Film, Aspen Historical Society; Aspen Music Festival and School; Aspen Santa Fe Ballet; Jazz Aspen Snowmass; The Aspen Institute; The Red Brick Center for the Arts; Theatre Aspen; and the Wheeler Opera House.

Direct wage and salary employment of the participating organizations, plus employment in other establishments engaged in arts and cultural production, totaled 904 jobs. That is equivalent to 4.9% of the estimated roughly 18,324 total wage and salary jobs in Pitkin County in 2019, according to the study.


Debbie Braun, president and CEO of ACRA, said the report is a living, breathing document that will be built upon with future surveys and marketing efforts.

Of course, the world has changed since the study was conducted with the coronavirus pandemic virtually halting all in-person events.

“It will be interesting to pay attention because of what has happened in 2020, how long it might take us to build back to where we are here (the study’s findings),” Braun said.

“So we’ll be interested in following up with this study probably in the next few years now that all of the groundwork has been laid.”

Fletcher said he is part of an international group of arts theaters and one of 500 CEOs representing organizations in the world.

The group did an internal survey of how quickly they think their sector will rebound after COVID-19, when audiences will feel comfortable coming back once venues fully reopen.

“Overall, our sector thinks that between six and 12 months is the return,” he said.

Fletcher noted that the Music Festival plans to have in-person concerts this summer at the Benedict Music Tent, at likely a third of the capacity.

“With social distancing and whatever the county needs in terms of public health so it won’t be our full thing,” he said.