The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Broadway in Chicago's Wicked Awesome Year

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 17, 2007 9:37PM

2007_01_story.jpgA study commissioned by Broadway in Chicago about Broadway in Chicago reveals — surprise! — Broadway in Chicago is injecting big bucks into the city. How big? Around $635 million in 2006, give or take a few hundred million.

An article in today’s Sun Times blew a big sloppy kiss to the Live Nation/Clear Channel/Nederlander money machine, leading with that impressive figure which they concede is a tad inflated. Around half of it ($320 million) accounts for what patrons actually spend during their big night out, the other half is what merchants pump into the downtown economy. Broadway in Chicago’s president was taken aback, saying “We didn't know how big big was.”

We suspect they still don’t know how big they really are. No one disputes they had a good year, as Wicked consistently packs the house, Spamalot was a tough ticket, and Spelling Bee has brought some life to Drury Lane Water Tower. But these figures still look inflated. The number crunchers conducting this survey at Fishkind & Associates likely assumed you (and the thousands who walked through the Palace and Oriental theaters) came downtown for the express purpose of seeing Martin Short, Tommy Tune or Valerie Harper. Your afternoon at the Sears Tower and Art Institute and dinner at Italian Village are a happy byproduct, contributing to that $635 million. Likewise, if the Art Institute commissioned an economic impact study, their bean counters would consider your night with Elphaba part of their inflated figure.

Our point is that many of us would still go downtown, Broadway musical or no, to enjoy any number of cultural attractions and tourist traps.

People much smarter than us share our reservations. In "Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding," George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen reminds us why economic impact studies are so much bunk (or in less academic circles, BS):

A study of this kind might show that an arts festival or new arts arena brings millions of dollars in economic value. But these studies typically treat arts expenditures as creating value out of nothing. Implicitly it is assumed that if the money had not been spent on the arts, no other economic or social values would have been produced. … By investing in one good idea we are always forsaking another good idea. In essence those studies list gross benefits rather than net benefits. Furthermore, once an economic impact study is being done, the resources are likely no longer undervalued.

For some perspective, the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation estimated the economic impact of Chicago’s live theater industry in 2002 at around $347 million. Should we believe that a few downtown houses in 2006 put to shame what all of the city’s houses did four years earlier? If so, you’ve got to get out of the Loop more often.

Photo via abmarfia in the Chicagoist Flickr group.