For a long time now, we’ve heard museum directors talk about the economic impact of their institutions in Maine, but we’ve never really heard them talk in specific terms. Most of their discussion has been anecdotal, or limited to individual museums.

Those generalities and the limited scope of their argument have made it easy for doubters to dispute the value of museums in Maine’s overall economic structure.

That’s no longer the case.

Thanks to a recent survey commissioned by the Maine Arts Commission and executed in part by one of Maine’s leading independent economic consultants, museum directors and their advocates now have hard data with which to make their cases.

According to the survey “Maine Museums: An Economic Impact Study,” 442,000 people visited 14 Maine museums in 2009 and spent nearly $71 million. Using current and accepted multiplier models, the survey estimates that direct spending of those visitors created a sales impact of nearly $148 million and generated more than $7.5 million in tax revenue for state and local governments.

“There has been a lot of talk about the creative economy, but not a lot of studies,” said Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission. “This report will function as an advocacy tool and an evidentiary tool.”

The report was authored by Chuck Lawton, chief economist at Planning Decisions Inc. in South Portland and a columnist for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and Lindsay Rowe, the arts recovery and reinvestment coordinator at the Maine Arts Commission.

Their conclusion: Maine’s museums are substantial economic enterprises and drivers that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors who stay in hotels and B&Bs, spend money in local communities and travel widely across the state.

The study is not wholly inclusive. Lawton and Rowe distributed visitor surveys at all of Maine’s major visual arts museums, as well as a few of the specialty museums, including the Abbe in Bar Harbor, Maine Maritime in Bath and the Maine State Museum in Augusta. It did not include visitor surveys at history museums, such as the Maine Historical Society in Portland and many others.

In addition to the Abbe, Maine Maritime and Maine State, museums that participated in the survey include the Bates, Bowdoin and Colby college museums of art; the Farnsworth in Rockland; the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art in Portland; the Monhegan Museum; Ogunquit Museum of American Art; the Portland Museum of Art; the Tides Institute in Eastport; University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor; and the Art Gallery at the University of New England in Portland.

The survey asked visitors where they are from, why they came, how they got there, and how much money they spent on lodging, food, transportation, shopping and recreation.

According to the report, visitors were most likely to:

Live in a state other than Maine (60 percent);

Identify the primary purpose of their trip as vacation (52 percent);

Use their own car (66 percent);

Stay overnight at a hotel, motel or B&B (50 percent).

Spending patterns vary greatly by museum, but the average overnight visitor spends $243 per day, or twice the amount of other overnight visitors to the state who come for leisure purposes and three times the amount of visitors who come to see family and friends. Folks who do not stay overnight spend $92 a day.

“It is important to keep in mind that these results reflect only the 14 museums participating in the study and do not account for the hundreds of millions of additional dollars resulting from the direct and indirect impact of visitor spending generated by the hundreds of other museums in the state,” write the report’s authors.

The Maine Arts Commission posted the survey on its website in early October, resulting in a flurry of conversation among museum directors.

Most of it went something like this post that Saco Museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier posted on her Facebook page with a link to the survey: “We’ve always known that museums drive your local and state economy here in Maine — here is the proof.”

McNeil said the Maine Arts Commission intends to distribute the survey to all the museums across Maine, to help them with their own fundraising and to use when they pitch the value of their institutions to their local economic development people. Legislators also will get a copy of the report.

And no doubt, it also will go to the tourism folks. It’s safe to say that cultural tourism is going to get a lot of attention in Maine going forward, McNeil said, adding that the next survey will focus on the economic impact of Maine’s performing arts institutions.

“There’s a national statistic out there that says that more people visit museums in America, including all the history museums, than attend sporting events,” McNeil said. “People don’t always believe it, but there are other things to do in this country than attend a ballgame. This study makes the case. People who come to Maine for cultural tourism stay longer and spend more.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]