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Arts education delivers a good return on Minnesota's investment

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Ann Markusen
Ann Markusen is director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a SNAAP National Advisory Board member.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Budget crises force decisions that either improve a state's economic future or compromise it.  While Minnesota has been more fortunate than most in riding out the recent recession, much of this good outcome is because of the high quality of education in the state, from preschool to post-graduate. Outsized cuts to education, however, will threaten our greatest resource, the pipeline of human capital. 

Take arts program graduates, for example. New evidence from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) refutes the "starving artist" stereotype. Of 13,600 graduates from 154 U.S. public and private college arts programs, conservatories and arts high schools -- including two in Minnesota -- 81 percent found jobs soon after graduation. Their current unemployment rates (6 percent) are substantially below the national average, and their job satisfaction levels are very high. 

Artists and designers are core employees in our cultural industries. Minnesota's nationally prominent publishing, advertising and architecture firms, for instance, rely heavily on the creativity and training of the state's arts grads. More than 10 percent of the advertising industry's workforce consists of visual artists, writers and designers who provide the crucial creative content. Minnesota arts also create jobs in the public and nonprofit sectors. Think of the cast and crew that University of Minnesota English grad Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" has supported for decades, and the income the show has brought back to Minnesota.

Crucial for fueling the 21st century economy is that many arts grads are entrepreneurs. More than 3 in 5 are self-employed at some point in their career, compared with 1 in 10 for all occupations. Writers and visual artists are more likely to be self-employed. But rates are also quite high among musicians, performing artists, architects and designers.  Fourteen percent of SNAAP respondents started their own companies, creating jobs for others.  

Arts grads contribute to the productivity of non-arts industries, too. They apply their creative skills to other sectors: designing products and services, writing guides and user manuals, photographing and filming marketing materials, redesigning business space, and using performance techniques to solve employee relations problems. The majority of arts graduates working outside of the arts -- especially in law, health and management fields -- report their arts education to be relevant to their current work.

In addition, creativity is a key competitive advantage for the American economy. Overall, 75 percent of arts grads say that their schooling contributed a great deal to their ability to think critically and creatively and to work effectively with others. In a new study by Vanderbilt University, arts graduates reported much greater emphasis on thinking creatively in their education curricula than did science and engineering graduates.

Does Minnesota retain the artists we educate? Artists, like scientists and engineers, are more likely than most other workers to move from one labor market to another. But Census data show that Minnesota attracts as many as it loses. Our smaller cities and towns are more apt to lose young artists to out-migration but gain many back in mid-career. But Minnesota has a superior track record for adding artists to the workforce compared to the rest of the nation. That's because our state home-grows more artists than many other states, thanks to the quality of our educational institutions, our extraordinary nonprofit arts infrastructure and our robust cultural industries. 

Almost 50 years ago, Nobel-prize winning economist Wassily Leontieff discovered that the United States is a labor-intensive, not capital-intensive, exporter. That finding shocked economists, but Leontieff showed that it is skilled labor-intensive products and services in which the United States excels. Even more today, science, engineering, medical, arts and design content creates and maintains good jobs in this country. Artists and designers are prominent in broadcasting and telecommunications, motion picture and sound recording, performing and visual arts, printing and publishing industries. That's a group of industries that exported $46 billion in 2008, equal to or larger than our air transportation, finance and farm sectors. 

Hammering education with disproportionate budget cuts is a poor economic choice. And despite arts and design's growing significance in a de-industrialized economy, funding for arts and design are being cut disproportionately.

Do we really believe that selective or across-the-board tax breaks for business will create and retain more jobs than maintaining and adding to our outstanding pool of human capital? Where's the evidence? Minnesota businesses have confirmed collectively, time and again, that the quality of our labor force is one of the most important reasons they come to and stay in our state. And many of our best companies are "home-grown," having once been the gleam in the eye of today's well-educated graduates. Let's keep it that way. 

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Ann Markusen is director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a SNAAP National Advisory Board member.