What museums and operas add to community purse

* The King Tut exhibit drew 870,000 visitors in four months when it swooped through New Orleans. * The Bronx Zoo is the largest employer of youth in the South Bronx in the summer.

* Massachusetts symphonies, bluegrass pluckers, opera companies, and other music groups lured more than 700,000 ticket-payers in 1978.

All this cultural fervor underscores one point: The arts have become an economic tour de force.

The nation's arts organizations nowadays are often Big Business. Together they provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and trigger perhaps millions in spending each year.

They are increasingly recognized for their role in spurring growth, drawing tourists, reinvigorating downtowns, and boosting the spiritual well-being of communities. Indeed, in this economics-oriented age the whole topic of what the arts do for the nation's pocketbook, as well as its soul, has become one of the hottest items since Picasso T-shirts.

Dozens of economic impact studies have been done over the years. They are often used to convince peevish legislators that supporting the local museum or fife-and-drum corps is an economic boon as well as a cultural one.

What do the figures show? In 1978, New England's nonprofit cultural organizations constituted a $560 million industry and employed more than 40,000 people, according to a study by the New England Foundation for the Arts. When audience spending and the money doled out for school arts programs is added in, the figure balloons to $1.5 billion.

Cultural institutions in six US cities -- Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis-St. Paul; St. Louis; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; and Springfield, Ill. -- generate a total of $76.3 million in direct spending a year, estimates a recent study coordinated by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The arts are also being used to enliven the marketplace. The Rouse Corporation, the Maryland-based real estate and management giant, is putting paintings and concertos in shopping malls. A branch of the Baltimore Museaum of Arts, for instance, has been opened in two Maryland malls. In February, excerpts from "Madame Butterfly" and "Naughty Marrietta" were performed by the Cleveland Opera Company at a shopping center in Cleveland.

Businesses to see benefits. Many rank the arts up near good schools and labor pools when sizing up towns. More broadly, some argue business flourishes best in an environment of vitality and innovation -- qualities the arts embody. Still, applying business standards to art ventures raises the risk that big, profitable institutions may benefit at the expense of smaller groups. The bigger groups often draw larger crowds and generate more spending, which could prompt patrons to fund them simply for that reason. Another worry: Too much talk about the arts as an "economic magnet" may cloud their real purpose.

"If the economic impact were the only justification, we would be building steel mills downtown," says David Cwi, director of the Baltimore-based Cultural Policy Institute, a research firm. "If you're looking at the arts in terms of how many jobs they generate, you're looking at them as if their purpose ought to be to generate jobs."

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