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Dr. Deborah J. Johnson with team members Dr. Francis Leazes,
Lucas Dieter of Rhode Island College, and Patricia Krupinski ’16.

​Johnson conducts arts and culture research for state collaborative

Dr. Deborah J. Johnson, professor of art history and of women’s studies, worked with other researchers to develop recommendations to help Rhode Island leaders enhance the arts statewide and to measure their economic impact.

Johnson worked with Dr. Francis Leazes, a political scientist at Rhode Island College, to produce the recommendations, part of a research paper titled “Measuring Successful Arts & Culture Strategies” that they prepared for the College & University Research Collaborative.

The research collaborative, a partnership among Rhode Island’s colleges and universities, conducts non-partisan research to help lawmakers make economic development decisions.

Johnson’s project, which recommended creation of a Rhode Island Arts & Culture Index, was one of five conducted by faculty at seven colleges and universities and was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation. Students, including Patricia Krupinski '16 (Elizabeth, N.J.), assisted Johnson and Leazes in their analysis. 

“There is so much empirical evidence that art improves lives,” Johnson said. “In the case of Rhode Island, for example, we see the way that arts have contributed to the renovation of downtown (Providence). It is a significant part of the Rhode Island economy already. What we need to do is continue to nurture and feed that sector so it can continue giving and to develop tools to quantify its impact.”

Quantifying the impact of the arts is a new area for analysis, Johnson said. The IRS considered art part of the gross national product for the first time in 2013, and nationally, art accounts for 3 percent of the economy.

Until now “there weren’t very many tools to measure this effect,” she said. Lots of different regions and cities were keeping different records of events.

“If we’re going to move in this direction, we need a measure and a barometer that is consistent,” she said.

Her research also recommended an administrative office to monitor growth of the arts and economic impact, and a creative hub to keep the arts concentrated in centralized areas.

“Arts and cultural events that are dispersive are less economically effective,” she said.

“Backbone” of the economy

Johnson, who studies 20th- and 21st-century material culture, hopes the study will encourage voters to seriously consider the significant economic impact of the arts when arts bond issues are placed on the statewide ballot this November.

“Obviously, the cultural impact is understood, and the psychic impact is understood,” Johnson said. “But for certain cities and states — in this case, Rhode Island — the arts have become an economic backbone.”

Rhode Island is the third-largest employer of artists in the nation, she said. And public artworks such as WaterFire — a series of bonfires on Providence’s three rivers — have been “astonishingly successful” here economically and have attracted scholarly and academic attention across the world, she said.

“It’s unbelievably successful in bringing money into the city and the state,” Johnson said. “There are many of us who would say that WaterFire single-handedly initiated the downtown renovation in the 1990s.”

Even though WaterFire has no admission price, the events have generated $20-to-$50 million in revenue over its two decades, she said. This “spillover economy” leads to 100 percent occupancy at nearby hotels on WaterFire nights, Johnson said.

“The restaurants indicate the same thing — if you don’t have a reservation weeks ahead of time for a WaterFire night, you’re not going to get one,” she said.

—Liz F. Kay

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