How Relevant are Arts and Culture in the U.S. Economy?

John Howkins, a British writer and media manager, popularized the term "creative economy" in 2001, referring to the arts and cultural sector. Howkins placed the value of the creative economy at a towering figure of US$2.2 trillion worldwide in the year 2000, a figure equivalent to the total size of the economy of France and about 12% of the U.S. economy on a given year (Kabanda, 2014). Howkins also found the industry is growing, on average, at a rate of 5% per year - a rate that is higher than the average yearly growth rates for OECD countries. Such figure reveals the tremendous economic potential of the creative economy in the development of economic and employment growth.


By the end of 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) estimated that the creative economy contributed US$729.6 billion, or 4.2 percent of GDP, to the U.S. economy. Results also showed that, since 1998, the arts and cultural industry grew, on average, much faster than the overall economy (NEA, 2014). Moreover, according to the NEA (2017), the U.S. creative economy contributes to a trade surplus that has been growing since 2006 and amounted to US$26.4 billion in 2014. The largest segment of the U.S. creative economy is the publishing sector, including software, (148 billion in 2009); followed by the motion-picture industry (60 billion in 2009) and the performing arts, sports, and museums (71 billion in 2009). 


In terms of employment, results from the 2008-2018 Occupation Outlook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that out of the 151 million individuals in the U.S. labor force in 2008, about 1.98 million (or 1.3%) were employed in artistic-related occupations. Their projections estimated a growth rate of 11% between years 2008 and 2018 (a rate that was slightly higher than the average growth of the labor force) (BEA, 2017). 


Notwithstanding, data indicate that the creative industry in the U.S. is very heterogeneous across different states. For instance, in states like New York, the sector generates high revenues but low-employment. On the contrary, in states like North Dakota, the sector generates significant employment but low revenues (BEA, 2017). Findings from the BEA also indicate that between years 2013 and 2014 the number of new jobs in the creative industry grew significantly (up to 5.7%) in states like California, Texas, and Florida; while it displayed an important contraction in states like Montana, Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia (See Figure 1). These differences highlight the fact that the creative economy comes in very different shapes and sizes and that the local context matters.

Figure 1: Arts and Cultural Employment. Percent change 2013-14

Source: BEA (2017)

Beyond economic growth and employment, the creative economy is increasingly acknowledged as a meaningful driver of social development. Indeed, the value of the creative economy cannot and should not be restricted to monetary terms only. The performing arts and other cultural activities are vehicles for a collective voice, gender equality, social capital, mental health, education, environmental promotion, national identity, cultural heritage, to name a few. For example, available literature indicates that arts participation and cultural assets can have substantial impacts on individuals and communities on several fronts, such as social inclusion, education, and technology development (Kabanda, 2014).


Despite its strategic importance, there is relatively little academic research assessing the impact of the creative economy on social and economic development outcomes; primarily to quantify the impact on arts participation and art assets on individuals and communities (Stupples, 2014). To bridge this information gaps, it is necessary to develop and promote a broader research and evaluation agenda that generates robust and scientific evidence quantifying the effects of the policies and programs that support the development of arts and the creative economy. 



BEA (2017). Arts and Culture Grow for Third Straight Year: New State Data Show Employment in These Industries Rises in 24 States. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.


Kabanda, P. (2014). The Creative Wealth of Nations: How the Performing Arts Can Advance Development and Human Progress. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.


NEA (2014). The Arts and Economic Growth. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.


NEA (2017). Latest Economic Data Tracks Arts and Cultural Jobs per State. Retrieved from


Stupples, P. (2014). Creative contributions: The role of the arts and the cultural sector in development. Progress In Development Studies, 14(2), 115-130.