What are the arts worth? 

Sea to Sky economic impact study shows local arts organizations and artists earn $16.5 million annually

It’s widely known that the Sea to Sky corridor is rich with talented artists, and it appears that their activities are paying dividends.

An economic impact study, funded by the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and the Creative Communities program of Arts Now, was commissioned by a regional steering committee earlier this year to examine the correlation between the local artistic and economic sectors.

The committee hired Ference Weicker & Company to survey local artists, art organizations and cultural stakeholders throughout the region, gathering feedback through telephone and online surveys on how the arts impact the economy. More than 300 people were surveyed; 202 artists, 45 arts organizations, and 55 community stakeholders.

“Our consultants were surprised at the numbers of people we kept pulling out for them to call,” Anne Popma, coordinator of the steering committee, said with a laugh. “We wanted to be as inclusive as possible, so we all worked very hard at getting lists together and making sure we had a good cross-section.”

Then, the preliminary survey results were presented at community workshops in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish to help generate feedback and develop recommendations to advance the cultural sector.

The 64-page study concluded that arts organizations and individual artists earn $16.5 million per year, employ 650 people, and have made almost $30 million in capital investments over the past five years.

Overall, the findings seem to reinforce the value of the sector in the region.

“The actual numbers were pretty significant,” Popma said. “Particularly the income generated by artists, and that tends to be overlooked, and the fact that the various arts councils in the region work very hard to try and make life easier for the artist.”

It also revealed some significant economic realities that weren’t evident before the study, such as the fact that many Whistler artists, who are represented by the Whistler Arts Council, actually live in Pemberton.

“They buy their groceries in Pemberton, and so the economic impact of the sector really does spread throughout the corridor, and we need to start thinking about strengthening the whole corridor, not just each community by itself,” Popma explained.

But the report has recommended, first and foremost, that the communities of Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish each need to work on developing their own “vision” for arts and culture, and improve their own internal capacities.

Popma was slightly surprised by the amount of revenue generated by individual artists throughout the region, as well as the variation of income generated throughout the different communities.

“Many of the organizations have been in existence for less than six years and a lot of the artists have been practicing their art in this area for less than six years, so it is a young sector and given how young it is, the impact that it already has is quite remarkable,” she said.

And the sector should continue to blossom.

“It’s going to grow a lot in the years ahead, particularly given the rapid rates of growth of the population in this area,” Popma said. “Hopefully, the Sea to Sky Highway improvements will make it more accessible, the media attention we’re going to get through the Games — all of these things bode well for the future and the main thing is for us to collaborate more effectively between the communities.”

The final report was finished later than anticipated. Popma had originally hoped it would be completed by the end of June, but she explained that it was only delayed because they kept finding additional names to consult during the survey phase.

“It’s actually pretty good timing, because it’s just before the election,” Popma said, adding that the final report will likely be discussed at the Whistler Arts Council’s upcoming arts, culture and heritage all candidates meetings at MY Millennium Place on Tuesday, Oct. 28, from 5:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.

“The all candidates meeting that we held before the last election was very significant in terms of getting people to think about these things before they were elected and to make commitments and to follow through on them,” she said.

Popma hopes that numbers from this economic impact study will help the sector continue to grow, even after the Olympics.

“I think it’s loud and clear that we have a strong foundation,” Popma said. “I think we have a lot of challenges ahead, particularly with what’s happening in the global economy, but we have lots of artists, we have the beginnings of a strong organizational capacity, with three arts councils in the region. Hopefully, this report will convince the Chambers of Commerce and the tourism agencies and local government that this is a serious sector with potential for future growth and we’ll get their support behind it.”

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