ROCKLAND – In the blue-collar town it calls home, the Farnsworth Art Museum doesn’t get a lot of respect for the role it plays in the community’s economic vitality.
Each year, when tax bills go out or when a City Council seat is up for election, some grumble a familiar refrain: The museum relies heavily on city services, but pays no property taxes on its sprawling downtown campus.
A report issued Monday by the Americans for the Arts group, however, gives the Farnsworth and other nonprofit arts groups in the Rockland area some bragging rights.
“Arts & Economic Prosperity,” a report funded by the American Express Co. and the National Endowment for the Arts, with a small contribution from the 91 communities it examined, concluded that the museum and other nonprofit arts groups in the community have a substantial economic impact, accounting for $21.8 million in spending in 2000.
That figure was arrived at by adding the $8.5 million spent by eight local arts groups to the estimated $13.3 million spent by those visiting local museums or attending performances.
According to the report, that spending supports the equivalent of 637 full-time jobs in Greater Rockland.
That Rockland was included in the first-ever report is the result of a connection between the Farnsworth and the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington. Chris Shrum, director of marketing and development at the museum, once worked at the National Endowment and, through a friendship with a vice president at the national organization, learned of the study.
Shrum said he successfully lobbied his friend to include Rockland.
The Knox County city proved to be an interesting choice for study, Shrum said Monday; in the group of 15 communities with populations of fewer than 50,000 in the study, the Rockland arts groups showed the second-highest economic impact, trailing only Portsmouth, N.H.
Other communities in the same group included Fairbanks, Alaska; Dover, Del.; and Gloucester, Mass.
Shrum said he sent 16 surveys to local, nonprofit arts groups in the Rockland area, and eight were returned. The participating groups also surveyed their own patrons.
According to the report, the spending by the eight groups generated $10.4 million in resident household income, and $785,000 in local government revenue and $1 million in state government revenue.
Shrum and others at the Farnsworth have long known the role the organizations play in their communities, he said.
“But it’s important for the museum to quantify its impact,” he said.
At lunchtime Monday, Shrum said he was presented with a manifestation of the impact, as he had to wait 20 minutes to pick up his lunch at Market-On-Main, a local eatery, because the staff there was busy serving a group that had just toured the museum.
Rockland Mayor Becky Gamage had not seen the report Monday, but said she agreed that the museum has a positive economic impact on the city. Still, she is not happy that the Farnsworth does not pay for the fire and police services on which it relies.
“I would like to see them donate something in lieu of taxes,” she said.
The Farnsworth’s annual budget is $2.4 million, and it draws about 100,000 visitors annually, Shrum said, with a typical admission price of $9. On average, visitors spend about $8 in the museum gift store, he said.
Reviewing the individual surveys completed during eight days at the museum last year, Shrum said he has drawn two conclusions: “The Farnsworth is clearly a destination,” he said, and the visitors “are spending an awful lot of money” on lodging and restaurants while they are in the area.
With about 70 percent of the museum’s visitors coming from outside a 50-mile radius of Rockland, Shrum said the community is benefiting from what he calls new money. Making an analogy, he said the museum is like Las Vegas, visited by people from across the country, as opposed to a local casino that may just recycle local dollars spent by local people.
“It’s those new dollars that come into the area that really grow an economy,” Shrum said.
Having heard the perennial complaints about the museum and its nontax status, he said the data are important for local government officials to understand.
If a private business occupied the Farnsworth campus, it would pay $300,000 annually in property taxes, Shrum estimated, making it the third- or fourth-highest taxpayer in the city. But he argued that a private business would not bring in visitors who spend money in the area at the rates that museum visitors do.
“What we deliver in economic impact far exceeds what we would pay in property taxes,” Shrum said.
Bay Chamber Concerts, a nonprofit organization based in Rockport that produces 30 classical concerts each year, also participated in the study. Kathy Maloney, director of marketing, said the organization’s annual budget is about $600,000, and about 11,000 attend its concerts.
“Not only do we bring people here,” she said, “but we spend,” renting performance space, buying supplies, and contracting for printing and advertising locally.
Like the museum, Bay Chamber Concerts has found that people are traveling from outside the area to attend performances, Maloney said.
“It’s important for business leaders in the community to realize how important the arts are to the community,” she said.
The Owls Head Transportation Museum was another participant. Its annual budget is about $970,000, said assistant director and curator Dave Machaiek, and it draws between 50,000 and 60,000 each year, with ticket prices ranging between $6 and $7.
Shrum said the same kinds of economic impacts measured in Rockland are seen in Belfast with the Belfast Maskers theater group and the Bearfest public art exhibition, and in Bangor with the Maine Discovery Museum, the Penobscot Theatre and this summer’s National Folk Festival, Shrum said, and other Maine communities.
American Express contributed $600,000 to the study, the National Endowment for the Arts contributed $100,000, and the Maine Arts Commission contributed $2,000 as a local share for Rockland to be included, Shrum said.