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The business of art: LI cultural institutions spend $1.8 billion a year

The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, seen

The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, seen here on June 15, moved to a new home on Montauk Highway in 2012. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Arts and cultural organizations — such as museums, concert halls and film festivals — play an important role in Long Island’s economy, spending $1.8 billion annually, Census data show.

Much of the expenditure is for employee salaries and benefits, including medical insurance, according to 2015 Census figures, the most recent available.

More than 22,500 people work in the local arts scene. That’s higher than the number employed by banks, real estate agencies or the federal government in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“Arts activities generate income and create the vibrant life that everybody is looking for in a community,” said Richard Vogel, an economist and dean of Farmingdale State College’s business school. “Life is about more than going to work, coming home and going to sleep.”

Besides the spending by cultural groups, their audiences boost the economy by purchasing admission tickets, visiting bars and restaurants before and after the show, purchasing mementos in the museum gift shop and staying overnight at a hotel.

Vogel said spending by arts groups and their audiences fluctuates with the ups and downs of the Long Island economy. For example, spending by local cultural organizations in 2015 dipped 2.7 percent from $1.85 billion in 2013, according to the Census data.

Statewide, the arts employed 462,600 people in 2015 and generated $114 billion in economic activity, or almost 8 percent of state GDP, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis said this year in the first-ever measure of culture’s financial impact. New York ranked No. 2, behind California, in terms of the arts’ economic impact.  

Besides their monetary contribution, cultural institutions help to create the high quality of life that is critical to keeping people and companies on Long Island. Vogel said employers remain in a region or move to a region because of the available workforce, which in turn wants amenities such as entertainment, recreation and good schools.

“Long Island is trying to create more of a critical mass of arts and cultural organizations, and to make linkages between them and the economy so these activities will have more of an impact,” he said, citing the opening of the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, The Paramount in Huntington village and The Argyle Theatre in Babylon Village on the sites of shuttered entertainment venues.

Industry stalwarts, such as the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post, are reinventing themselves to appeal to millennials and families. Others, such as the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, have moved to larger quarters.

Vogel said all three strategies — new venues, diverse programming and expansion — could boost the economic impact of arts institutions.

The Parrish’s new home on Montauk Highway, where it moved in 2012, has allowed the museum to nearly double its staff, and the number of visitors has increased by 127 percent. The award-winning building replaced a cramped facility on Jobs Lane in Southampton Village.  

Parrish, founded 120 years ago by a local lawyer, showcases paintings, sculpture, photographs and drawings from renowned artists with East End ties. It stands out among Long Island’s cultural venues because nearly 2 percent of its 68,200 visitors per year come from overseas.

These visitors, who hail from 36 countries, have an outsized economic impact because they bring new dollars to the community instead of recirculating money that’s already here, according to economists.

Parrish director Terrie Sultan said, “We create an economic engine by doing business every day.”

With the new facility, Parrish is able to simultaneously display its permanent collection and special exhibitions. The museum also expanded its ranks of curators,gift shop personnel and security guards, among others.

“We’ve gone from having one of everything to three or four of everything,” Sultan said, referring to the not-for-profit’s staff of 50. Employee salaries and benefits accounted for $2.7 million of the museum’s budget of $5.3 million last year, she said.

Being hired by the Parrish helped Maria Fumai Dietrich to fulfill a dream of having her two children grow up in Suffolk County as she did.

“I wanted to be in New York, I hoped to raise my kids near my family,” said Dietrich, who recently celebrated her one-year anniversary as the museum’s membership and individual giving manager. She is responsible for addressing the needs of 4,300 Parrish members and running the year-end fundraising appeal.  

Dietrich, 32, left Long Island at age 17 for college. She earned three degrees and spent more than a decade working for arts groups in Philadelphia before coming to the Parrish.

Dietrich, now living in Water Mill, said she looks forward to Tuesday dinners with her extended family, including her parents and sister. “I didn’t think it was possible until I saw the opening at the Parrish and then was offered the job . . . It’s been amazing,” she said.

The museum is working with Discover Long Island, formerly the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, to attract international tourists to the region. Museum officials also said they routinely direct their audience to other East End sites, including the home and studio of painter Jackson Pollock in Springs and the LongHouse Reserve sculpture garden in East Hampton.

New venues, such as The Paramount concert hall in Huntington and The Argyle musical theater in Babylon Village, are benefiting from the popularity of their downtown surroundings.

“We have an advantage in that the theater is within walking distance of tons of restaurants,” said Marty Rubin, sales director for The Argyle, which debuted in April on Babylon’s Main Street.

The Argyle will open “Hairspray,” the second of six musicals in its inaugural season on July 12. Each musical features a handful of union actors and runs at least six weeks, with a minimum of five performances per week. In between musicals, The Argyle offers tribute bands, comedy shows and other programming including children’s theater on weekend mornings.

The for-profit venue is the dream of Seaford psychologist Mark Perlman and actor son Dylan, who raised $3 million to convert the closed Bow-Tie Babylon Cinemas into a 500-seat performing arts space. They kept the 1922 building’s wooden moldings but added two floors of dressing rooms behind the stage, and modern lighting and sound systems.

The Perlmans’ potential to create a lively destination and jobs garnered $300,000 in tax breaks from the Babylon Town Industrial Development Agency and $150,000 from Empire State Development, the state’s primary business-aid agency. The building had been vacant for almost four years.

Rubin said about 50 people work on each musical, including 15 permanent employees. He said the annual payroll will exceed $1 million.

Among the full-time employees is Trisha Viola, who worked with Rubin at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, which also puts on musicals.

“I was terrified of the startup situation at first because I knew it meant long hours and lots of hard work,” said Viola, 49, of Miller Place, director of advertising and sponsorship sales for The Argyle. “But it’s also satisfying to see the theater come to life . . . This has been the highlight of my career so far.”

Viola is trying to build an audience for The Argyle and marketing relationships with businesses to grow everybody’s bottom line.

The Tilles Center at LIU Post is changing its menu of programs to attract families and those age 35 and up so it can continue to produce revenue.

“We hit a point of organizational maturity where you either have a decline or you go in new directions . . . The age of our audience had escalated significantly, a lot of folks had retired to Florida,” Tilles Center executive director Bill Biddle said. “We knew we had to change the types of programming that we do.”

Tilles Center, starting with the recently completed 2017-18 season, is adding Broadway show touring companies, rock bands from the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese acrobats and regional dance competitions to its mix of symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles and professional ballet and dance troupes.

“As we do different shows, people are coming back, and people are discovering who we are,” he said. “That’s how we are staying valid in the market.”

The 2017-18 season drew an audience of more than 150,000 people over about 80 performances. That’s a 10 percent rise from five years ago. And Biddle said he wants to grow the share that come from Queens, 20 percent, and other states, 5 percent, because they represent new dollars to the concert hall and, by extension, to Long Island.

Tilles Center, a not-for-profit that’s almost 40 years old, employs 15 people full time and 150 part time. The venue spends much of its $8-million budget locally.

“Economists and others often overlook the impact of performers’ spending in the community,” Biddle said. “Most have at least one night’s lodging, and we encourage them to visit Wheatley Plaza and the Americana,” two nearby shopping centers.

He also cited a recent study by the Broadway League trade association that found members of Broadway touring companies each spend $35 to $40 per day on basic necessities in host communities.

“Tilles is a business, and it’s art — and the two have to coexist if you’re going to be a sustainable organization,” Biddle said.

Regina Gil, a local advocate for the economic importance of culture, agreed, saying arts executives must anticipate changes in audience demographics and arts funding.  

She started the Gold Coast Arts Center in 1993 as a provider of art classes for children in Great Neck. Since then, the not-for-profit center has expanded to offer art exhibitions, performances, film screenings and lectures. The Gold Coast International Film Festival, a sister organization, will mark its eighth year in November.

The center ran into financial difficulty in 2012 when it could no longer afford the mortgage and debt on its Middle Neck Road building, once used by film icon and Great Neck resident Charlie Chaplin. Gil struck a deal where North Hempstead Town purchased the structure and rents it back to the center for $1 per year, along with a discretionary town grant.

“I’ve seen the potholes that others fell into,” she recalled.

The center has a budget of $1 million, with about $600,000 going toward compensation for 50 employees, 15 of whom are full time.

Gil applauded North Hempstead officials for embarking on Long Island’s first cultural master plan to improve and promote attractions. She said it was a recognition that the arts are important to the economy.

“The arts inspire, entertain and educate,” said Gil, who also leads the town’s arts council. “They are good for business and good for an enriched life.”

New York State is working to increase the economic impact by encouraging collaborations among the island’s arts councils and between arts groups and tourism promoters.

The state Council on the Arts considers the financial effects of a proposed cultural project, along with educational and entertainment value, when weighing whether to provide funding, said executive director Mara Manus, who led the Public Theater in Manhattan and the Southampton Arts Center before joining state government two years ago.

She said, “You can’t underestimate the power of the arts to drive economies and transform communities.”

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