Creative Minnesota


Quantifying the Value of Art


Words by Kara Larson / Featured in Make It Minnesota’s Summer 2015 issue.

Creative Minnesota is a project that aims to illuminate and explain the great impact of the arts across our Northern state. An essential aspect of Minnesota’s identity and allure, the arts and culture sector encourages community connectedness, enriches quality of life, and attracts creatives and intellectuals alike to strengthen the workforce. At the base of this study is Sheila Smith, who is coming into her 20th year as the Executive Director for the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and is also serving the chair of the committee and manages the entire Creative Minnesota project.

Born and raised right here in Minnesota, Sheila attended St. Olaf College, where she attained a degree in Shakespeare. She also formerly worked at the Minnesota legislature, which sparked her beginnings in combining the worlds of art and politics. In her current work, Sheila explains, "Minnesota Citizens for the Arts lobbies the legislature and congress on behalf of the non-profit arts and that’s why we’re interested in research, because it helps us advocate. We’re in this place that’s like halfway between the political world and the arts world."

Her background certainly lends her the position as mediator between these two worlds, but Creative Minnesota also brings in a third area of interest—economics. Sheila offers, "Unlike any other industry, the non-profit arts and culture sector did not have good data about itself. If you look at dentists in Minnesota or the construction industry, you’re going to find a great deal of information. How many contractors are there? What’s the economic impact of construction in the state? How important is it to the economy? For the arts, we didn’t have that kind of information."

With a hope to quantify the economic impact of the non-profit arts and culture sector, Sheila, along with an established team, joined the national Cultural Data Project. Sheila shares, "This connected Minnesota to a national effort to centralize the kind of data that needs to be collected by arts and cultural organizations when they’re applying to grant makers. So it’s an on-line centralized database in which the organization enters all their information and then the foundations use that along with additional information to make their grant making decisions. And a happy byproduct of that is a great big database of financial information about arts and culture organizations in Minnesota."


After working on this project for a couple of years, Sheila and her team had enough data to begin to dig deeper. "We were able to start really looking at the sector and analyzing it and creating some statistics that would help us understand how the non-profit economy is working and how many organizations there are and whether they’re spread across the state geographically—all kinds of interesting things. We then contracted with Americans for the Arts to use our data to create an economic impact study. We also did some independent analysis of that data plus other data to come up with the Creative Minnesota report."

These results fill many gaps in previous research, so Sheila is confident that this project is going to go far. "We’ve already used it in legislative advocacy. We’ve talked to mayors and city council members and economic development professionals all across the state about using the arts in their economic developments thinking and planning for the future."

Sheila believes in this project because of the incredible arts community that Minnesota houses. "The arts are something that really sets Minnesota apart from surrounding states; it’s something that makes us unique. We have double the arts economy of Wisconsin, even though Wisconsin has more people than we do. Then you look around at other surrounding states, we have 10 and a half times the arts economy of Kansas. We have 12 and a half times the arts economy of South Dakota."

For Minnesota, this is huge. These numbers provide insight into what sets our state apart. In addition to the statewide information, Creative Minnesota also includes regional studies. "No matter where you live in Minnesota, you can get an assessment of the level of arts and culture activity in your area and its economic impact. And we also did audience surveying to supplement the data and found out a lot of interesting things about our audiences, including that people coming from outside our area spend more money when they attended arts events than people who are from the area." Sheila adds, "So that’s an obvious directive to economic development professionals to think about how to attract more people to their cities from outside of the city to spend their money."

Outsiders are particularly drawn by the arts to all of the state’s border areas. Southwest Minnesota, for example, has the largest percentage of audiences that come from outside of the region—drawing people from Iowa and South Dakota. In Sheila’s eyes, this shows that when people are trying to figure out where they should spend promotional dollars, this is data to consider.

The results of Creative Minnesota are being shared with the public in a very hands-on way. Sheila is making her way around the state on a journey that will include around 60 presentations by the end of June in all corners of Minnesota to over 3000 people. And the results have been received very well. "It’s a joy to be able to go out and tell people good news. Particularly the way that the arts and culture set Minnesota apart from the surrounding states, thinking about audience spending and how to capitalize on that—it is something that any city, large or small, can spend some time thinking about. And I’ve enjoyed particularly the meetings that we’ve had along with the state’s Initiative Funds, which are economic development groups that work primarily in rural Minnesota where we brought groups of arts people and economic development people all into one room to talk about this issue."

Sheila adds, "For example, at the West Central Initiative Fund in Fergus Falls, folks said, "Wow, we’ve never had these two groups together before and this was a great meeting and we’re going to keep talking to each other." So that’s the kind of thing we want to see. This highlights the importance of the arts and culture to the economy and into communities."

Once again, Sheila is faced with the opportunity to combine two worlds. "If you want to teach people about the arts and culture, you need to speak their language. Not everybody understands the intrinsic value of the arts, which those of us who work in the arts do understand. You need to figure out how to speak their language, so that’s the benefit of doing research which is a little bit out of our usual think, so that we have those ways to talk to people."

The new language includes economic impact, jobs created, local spending, and many more economic areas that were simply uncounted before this study. One of the most exciting pieces of data for Sheila has to do with the number of kids served by non-profit arts and cultural organizations annually. "We found 2.6M K-12 students served annually, by non-profit arts and cultural organizations, and there’s only 900,000 K-12 students in Minnesota. So we’ve learned every kid gets on average three experiences in the arts and culture from non-profit arts and cultural organizations a year."

Another aspect that excites Sheila is the growth that the study measured. "There was an economic impact study of the arts and culture in 2006 and it found $838M annually in economic impact. And here we get a result of $1.2B in economic impact. So we had this tremendous growth in the arts and culture economy in Minnesota. We had a growth of 11,000 more people whose jobs are provided by the economic activity of arts and culture organizations. It’s a major industry in Minnesota and we just have never been able to talk about it."

The results have been quantified. The data is being presented. So, what’s next for Creative Minnesota? The group will update this data every two years, so in 2017 they will take another look and see how the numbers have moved. Within this two-year cycle, they hope to add another component to it each two years. Sheila shares, "So two years from now, we’re hoping to look at the economic lives of individual artists in addition to the economic impact of the non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Because the study we have now is just the organizations, it doesn’t include the artists, and of course artists are extremely important."

Continued growth and progress are on the menu for the future of Creative Minnesota, but Sheila is also incredibly grateful for where the project is today. She shares, "I’d like to particularly thank the members of the Creative Minnesota team who met monthly and worked very hard to make this happen. It was a very hands-on group of arts and culture leaders and they were very, very smart and I enjoyed working with them and they need to get some kudos."

For more in-depth information on Creative Minnesota, including access to all the data sets, details on the $1.2 billion economic impact generated every year, the 1,269 participating organizations, each region’s impact, and the 22 funding partners, please visit the Creative Minnesota website,