Conversations about arts funding often center on what can't be measured, such as the creativity of a community or the higher quality of life that arts organizations may provide.
But as funds at all levels of government become tighter, taxpayers may wonder what else they stand to gain when their dollars go toward the arts.
"They're not dollars that are spent frivolously. They're reinvested into this community, and the return is huge," said Brian Laczko, executive director of the Carson Center.
More than $138,600 in state grants was distributed among six local groups - the National Quilt Museum, the Paducah Symphony Orchestra, the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center, the Market House Theatre, Maiden Alley Cinema and the Yeiser Art Center - during Kentucky Arts Day on Jan. 28.
The Carson Center received the biggest portion of that amount, at $61,556. In return, Laczko said, the performing arts center generated close to $1.3 million in state revenue and $471,776 in local revenue during the 2013 fiscal year.
"That's just smart investment," he said.
The Carson Center isn't alone in its contribution. In total, the Kentucky Arts Council invested nearly $1.9 million in 103 nonprofit arts organizations during the 2013 fiscal year. Those organizations returned $7.4 million in federal taxes, $1.2 million in state taxes, and $544,595 in local taxes and fees, according to the council's Public Value Report for 2013.
Those same nonprofits also spend money locally - and bring in audiences that spend even more. Laczko said that between $3.1 million in organizational spending and $7.8 million in estimated audience spending, the Carson Center had about a $10.9 million impact on the community last year.
He said this number was calculated using an input/output formula developed by Americans for the Arts in their "Arts & Economic Prosperity III" study, published in 2009. The study tracked spending by 29 nonprofit arts and culture organizations, their audiences, and individual artists in the greater Paducah area. It measured full-time equivalent jobs, resident household income, and revenue from taxes and other fees to state and local governments, and concluded that nonprofit arts and culture groups generate $39.9 million in local economic activity.
Michael Cochran, director of the Market House Theatre, prefers to think of it in simpler terms - such as a can of paint.
When the theater buys paint for a backdrop, it has an immediate economic impact, just as when anyone else makes the same purchase. But audiences then pay to see performances put on in front of that backdrop, and spend additional money at local restaurants, gas stations, and even hotels. New businesses become attracted to the area. It all results in what he calls a ripple effect on the economy.
"That's where the arts are an amazing economic engine to generate additional tax revenue and additional businesses," he said.
Organizations reported it's more likely that private donations and earned income, rather than tax dollars, help buy that proverbial can of paint.
Cochran said 65 to 70 percent of the theater's funds come from earned income, with another 30 to 35 percent generated by fundraising events, grants, donations and sponsorships. The Arts Council funds help with general operating support, such as utility bills, rather than specific projects, which allows the theater to spend its money in the community.
At the Carson Center, government grants contributed to 11.6 percent of the total, while earned revenue covered 78.8 percent and contributions made up 21.2 percent, Laczko said.
Even smaller organizations, such as the Mayfield-Graves County Art Guild, stay afloat largely through private efforts.
Art guild director Shane Gregory said the amount the guild received from its Kentucky Arts Partnership grant - $1,687 - would cover a little less than a month's worth of the Ice House's expenses, which include utilities, insurance and his salary.
"Ninety percent of our funding comes from private donations and memberships," he added.
Gregory makes no claims that the art guild helps drive the economy, but like others in the nonprofit arts sector, he believes there's more to the arts than what can be expressed in numbers.
"Our primary focus is giving new artists an opportunity to get some experience showing their work and selling their work. It gives the community a place to come. Within Mayfield and the surrounding areas, there's not something like this," he said.
It's a sentiment echoed even in the halls of the Carson Center, where Laczko says educational programs such as the Class Acts Series, which groups such as the Oscar Cross Boys and Girls Club regularly attend, help lend perspective to kids who aren't guaranteed exposure to the arts.
"Opening their world up to beyond what they see on a daily basis is the most important thing we can offer (kids)," he said. "They can look at the world in a different way from the generations before them, who have been in a continuing cycle."
It may be difficult to put a price tag on that, but nonprofits believe it's a good investment.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
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