Why the Arts Matter to Counties (now more than ever!)

This blog originally was published for the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) newspaper and website. Americans for the Arts has partnered with NACo for over 20 years, working together to advance the arts and culture in America. This version has been lightly edited for ARTSblog readers.


A text graphic with yellow and blue speech bubbles that reads "Spotlight on Civic Engagement"Traditionally when Americans for the Arts writes articles for NACo News, we focus on the statistics: number of arts jobs (5.2 million), economic impact ($920 billion in 2019), gross domestic impact (4.3% of the economy—more than construction, transportation, or agriculture), etc. While these numbers are probably even more important today given the effects of the pandemic on our economy, this article is going to focus on a more basic question: Why do the arts matter?

If you ask 100 people this question, you will most likely get 100 different answers, but each of these answers will be authentic and personal to that responder. This is what makes the arts so powerful and diverse. As we struggle each day with the pandemic and fight harder for racial equity, we are grateful that the arts are there to support us. As your county’s first responders battled the ravages of the pandemic, the arts were there to bring them peace, to allow them to express their feelings, vent their frustrations, and to help them to emotionally cope with what they saw and had to do to save lives and to keep the rest of us safe. I would encourage you to check out FirstRespondersArt.org to learn more.

Beyond first responders and essential workers, many of us were confined to our homes with limited personal interactions. During this time, we listened to music, we read, we danced, we watched movies and TV. We learned new hobbies such as cooking, playing an instrument, painting, writing, or whatever called out to us. It was the arts that helped keep us emotionally healthy. Search “balcony concerts” on YouTube to see some great examples of people using the arts as a coping mechanism during the height of the pandemic.

Then the summer of protests arrived on top of the pandemic. We learned the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. Again, the arts played a role in how the country saw race and called for justice. Songs were written; poetry, too. People of all ages made posters and signs and then marched. Murals were painted, large and small. The arts were there to tell the stories and record them for history.

There are over 5 million people employed in the creative economy in America. The arts, along with tourism and restaurants, are some of the hardest hit industries as a result of the pandemic. Even after incredible federal, state, and county assistance, 27% of musicians are still unemployed, along with 52% of actors and 55% of dancers.

Every county in America, large or small, urban or rural, has the arts as part of its collective experience. Artists live everywhere and their work seeks to engage their fellow humans to ask questions, to look at a topic in a new way, to foster dialogue, or to bring people together. As an arts advocates, it is up to us to recognize and educate others about the value that the arts bring to any county, to encourage it, to highlight it, and even to help support it. The arts will always be there to be part of our nation’s narrative—we just need to listen and to act.

I urge you to take a little time to reach out to your county leaders and talk with them about your county’s arts assets. They will be surprised by how many artists and arts organizations exist. Urge them to dedicate funds to support the arts in your county—remember, the stronger the arts scene, the more tax revenue a county will reap. Remind them to consider using Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for arts-related projects. Ask them to designate some of your county’s Recovery and Relief funds to support the arts—the quicker they can recover, so can your county’s economy. And remind them that USDA Rural Development funds can be used to support the arts.

With the COVID-19 vaccine, the creative economy is ready to help get our economy back on track by getting people safely out of their homes, spending money, interacting with others, and helping us to return to a sense of normalcy.

The arts will continue to work overtime in every community, household, and family, doing what they do best: connecting us, giving us needed moments of joy, and most of all creating hope.

Why the Arts Matter to Counties (now more than ever!)