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September 2006
Volume 1, Number 9

Artrain USA: Connecting to the Community

Kevin Pollock and Linda R. Boitos

In conducting an economic and intrinsic impact study for the Ludington Area Arts Council, West Shore Community College in Scottville, Michigan, has found a distinctive way to connect and work with the local community. The college, located in rural northwest lower Michigan, has a service area of approximately 60,000 people. The area, hard hit by Michigan’s slow economic recovery, relies on tourism as a major part of its economy.

With this in mind, the Ludington Area Arts Council (LAAC) sought tangible evidence that communities benefit economically by hosting arts and cultural events. LAAC is a regional coalition of artists, business owners, and members of other arts-supporting organizations, including the Downtown Ludington Board, West Shore Art League, West Shore Community College, Ludington Mural Society, Manistee Symphony Orchestra and Choir, and others.

LAAC’s mission is to support artists and artistic expression in a variety of forms, to shape the direction of arts and culture in the Ludington area community, and to contribute to the long-term health and growth of the Ludington area. To this end, LAAC sponsors local arts events as well as imports arts resources when appropriate, possible, and affordable. The Artrain USA project was chosen as one aligning with LAAC’s mission and goals.

The resources of any arts association are generally scarce, and the costs of arts sponsorship demanding. Communities are routinely asked for resources to contribute to arts events orchestrated by local arts associations and chambers of commerce. Even in healthy economic climes, business owners want to predict their return on investment prior to committing money, time, or other resources to supporting arts events.

West Shore Community College worked with the Arts Council and conducted a limited-scope project as a pilot to assist the Arts Council, test new survey automation technology, and develop a reusable process model that would define steps of the study from beginning to end within a short time frame.

The primary objectives of the study were to measure the economic impact of Artrain USA on local businesses, measure the intrinsic impact of the event on visitors and residents, develop a reusable process for the Ludington Area Arts Council to conduct future studies, and provide a template for use by other communities in measuring the economic and intrinsic impacts of local arts events.

Artain USA (www.artrainusa.org) is a traveling art exhibit, housing within its vintage train cars a gallery of theme-specific world-class artwork. Conceived in Michigan in 1971 as a short-term program to bring art to Michigan communities with limited access to metropolitan museums, the nonprofit organization has since become a national touring museum, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The 2005 exhibit, “Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture”, is a contemporary Native American exhibition that illustrates how popular culture has influenced Native American artists. A discussion with the president of Artrain USA, Deb Polich, revealed that, to her knowledge, no formal effort had ever been made to measure the economic impact of the Artrain’s visit to communities. The project brought together college faculty and staff with a variety of community stakeholders, including members of the Ludington Area Arts Council, local business owners, and regional marketing and public relations professionals.

Conducting the Survey

Using the Memorial Day 2005 Artrain USA visit to Ludington as the pilot arts event, a survey instrument was developed and a process for conducting the survey defined. At a minimum, questions for the Artrain USA visitor survey were developed to reveal

  • If the respondent was a resident;
  • If the nonresident respondent traveled to the area specifically to attend the Artrain USA exhibit, and what accommodations had been chosen;
  • If the respondent felt intrinsic value as a result of attending the exhibit;
  • How long the nonresident planned to be in the area; and
  • How much the respondent had spent, or planned to spend, on dining and at retail shops and galleries.

During Artrain USA’s stay in Ludington, the total number visitors was 2,647. On the two general public viewing days, 1,041 adults, 302 children, and 378 seniors toured the train. On the two designated school days for Mason County public and private elementary schools, 818 students in grades 4, 5, and 6 viewed the exhibit. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Volunteers from the Ludington High School chapter of Business Professionals of America (BPA) encouraged visitors to complete a brief survey as they exited the train. Since the target audience was primarily adults, surveys were offered to exiting patrons on opening ceremony day and on the two general public days. The survey was not conducted on school days. Of the 1,511 visitors on these three days (1,133 adults; 378 seniors), 633 responded to the questionnaire, resulting in an ample response rate of 42 percent.

Respondent Profiles

The largest age group of both males and females was “over 55” at about 40 percent, and females outnumbered males by nearly two to one (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Nearly 50 percent of all respondents indicated that they were residents of the Ludington area (see Figure 3). Twenty percent of respondents were on vacation or visiting friends or family. Twenty-seven percent (169) of respondents stated that their primary purpose for being in the Ludington area was to visit the Artrain USA exhibit.

Figure 3

Economic Impact Measures

Artrain USA visitor survey respondents were asked about the amount of money they might spend at local restaurants, retail stores, galleries, and craft shops. Of 480 valid responses, omitting blanks, 310 (65 percent) responded that they were likely to dine at a local restaurant during their visit. Sixty-five percent (290) also responded positively when asked if they were likely to make a purchase at a local retail store. When asked if that purchase might be art-related, 31 percent (130) said yes. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4

Area retail stores, galleries, and accommodation providers were interested in whether Artrain USA visitors expected to make these planned purchases in the downtown district or the surrounding area, and how much visitors expected to spend in each (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

Although the scales differ – the number of missing responses varied between the two questions – notice the common shape of the curve on the charts. Respondents claiming expenses of over $100 may be those with plans to seek accommodations in the area.

When asked if respondents would consider attending a future arts-related event in the Ludington area, residents and nonresidents alike responded positively with an overwhelming 97 percent.

Survey Results

  • Despite limited response rates, local retailers reported that sales increased during the Artrain USA visit compared to the same period last year, up 14.05 percent when reported by month; up 6.5 percent when reported by Memorial Day weekend dates.
  • Total Artrain USA visitors, including opening ceremonies, general public viewing days, and school days, numbered 2,647, comprised of 1142 adults, 381 seniors, and 306 children on public days, and 818 4th, 5th, and 6th graders on school days.
  • Sixty percent of survey respondents were female, and 41 percent were over 55.
  • Visitors to the region need no incentive to choose Ludington, with its pristine beaches, magnificent sand dunes, and superior camping, as their destination for Memorial Day weekend, the official start of the Michigan tourist season. Nevertheless, formal promotional efforts and considerable word-of-mouth resulted in 27 percent (171) of all survey respondents indicating their primary reason for being in the area was the Artrain USA exhibit.
  • Although the majority of survey respondents were area residents (48 percent), 11 percent of those whose primary reason for being in the area was to attend the exhibit traveled more than 100 miles, with some traveling as far as 1,500 miles.
  • Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were likely to dine and shop during their visit to the region.
  • Calculating responses to questions regarding local spending plans, Artrain USA visitors’ spending was conservatively estimated at $35.50 per person.
  • Factoring the per person forecast against adult visitors on general public days alone, total economic impact of the Artrain USA visit to the region was calculated to be $52,885, exceeding its estimated cost by 40 percent.
  • With regard to the intrinsic cultural value of the Artrain USA exhibit, ninety-three percent of all respondents felt increased awareness and understanding of the exhibit’s subject as a result of attending the event.
  • Ninety-seven percent would consider attending future arts-related events in the region.

Viewed collectively, these findings endorse a credible business case that should attract sponsors and supporters to local arts and cultural events, and transform local businesses and economic boards into committed advocates of the arts in Ludington and surrounding regions.


A variety of factors influence the number of visitors to the region during any specific weekend or time period. Although art proponents would like to state with certainty that cultural events like Artrain USA put money in the pockets of local businesses, our study, like others before it, lacked the specificity to draw such conclusions unequivocally. The data did not, however, contradict our hypothesis, and in fact supported it to a reasonable degree.

Our confidence in the economic and intrinsic benefits gleaned from community arts events remains high, more so due to national, thorough, and systematic studies such as those conducted by Rand and Americans for the Arts. Based on the total number of adult and senior Artrain USA visitors on public days, the Arts and Prosperity Calculator devised by Americans for the Arts estimates dollars entered into the local economy at over $35,000, exceeding by half the estimated cost of $21,500. (Note: $13,000 of the $21,500 cost of Artrain USA went directly to the Artrain USA organization; the remainder was spent locally on fuel, housing of exhibit staff, tents, barriers, portable toilets, cleaning, insurance riders, catering, and other associated expenses.)

Examining our own data, we analyzed responses to the two survey questions that prompted respondents to estimate a dollar amount they planned to spend in downtown Ludington, the surrounding area, or both. We took the lowest number in the survey category range for each response and used this as our multiplier to estimate total potential spending by respondents. For instance, in the “under $40” category, we used $10 as our multiplier; in the “$40 to $80” range, we used $40, etc., as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Through this collaborative effort, West Shore Community College and the Ludington Area Arts Council created a partnership that provided valuable insight into future arts programs and the economic benefits to the local community.

The partnership engaged college faculty and staff, community leaders, and high school students. Reaching out to the community, West Shore Community College developed a vehicle that assisted the local Arts Council, tested new automation tools supporting institutional research, forecasted the economic impact of an Artrain USA event to local businesses, and provided a template for use by other communities in measuring economic and intrinsic impacts.


McCarthy, K., Ondaatje, E., Zakaras, L., & Brooks, A. (2004). Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts. Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

Americans for the Arts. (2002). Arts and Economic Prosperity: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts Organizations and Their Audiences. Washington, DC: American Express Company, The National Endowment of the Arts, and the 91 Community Partners.

Kloeckner, J. (2005, May 31). Artrain USA Draws Nearly 2,000. The Ludington Daily News.

Boitos, L. (2005) Artrain USA Economic and Intrinsic Impact Study: Results, Process Model, and Survey Development for the Ludington Area Arts Council. Scotville, MI: West Shore Community College, Office of Institutional Research. Available for download at: http://www.westshore.edu/media/docs/Economic_Intrinsic_Impact_Study_Report.pdf

Kevin Pollock is Vice President of Student Services and Linda R. Boitos is Director of Institutional Research at West Shore Community College in Michigan.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor