DANBURY — A couple from New York decides to see the Danbury Music Centre’s “Nutcracker Ballet.”

To prepare for the date, she buys a new top at the Danbury Fair mall. On the drive to the show, he stops to get gas. Since they have time before the show, they go to the drive-thru at Starbucks. After the show, they stop for a drink downtown. They don’t want the night to end, so they finish their evening with a late dinner on Mill Plain Road.

This simple scenario, repeated several million times annually, helps explain how small nonprofit arts and culture groups each year generate $235 million in economic activity in Fairfield County.

That is according to a new national report — the largest of its kind ever conducted — which argues government support of the arts is an investment in economic development that pays big dividends.

“You are throwing your money away if you are not investing in the arts,” says Kristina Newman-Scott, the director of culture at the state Department of Economic and Community Development. “We know that in Connecticut, for every dollar you spend on the arts and culture, you get $7 back.”

The report, “Arts and Economic Prosperity 5” by the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, found nonprofit arts organizations in Fairfield County employed the equivalent of 6,700 full-time workers and contributed $21 million in local and state taxes in 2015.

Statewide, the total economic activity generated by nonprofit arts groups was $800 million, the report said, with 23,000 people working full-time in the industry and $72 million contributed in local and state taxes.

The report’s numbers show the nonprofit arts and culture industry is growing in Connecticut, even though the report likely underestimates the impact theaters, art centers and museums are having on local economies.

The reason: While arts-related economic activity has grown 23 percent statewide since the last time its effect was calculated, in 2010, two-thirds of Connecticut’s nonprofit arts groups have not participated in the studies.

The problem is not only in Connecticut but nationwide. Only 14 percent of the 100,000 nonprofit arts groups across the country shared their financial information with researchers.

“The arts groups are severely underrepresented,” said Lisa Scalis, executive director of Danbury-based Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut, one of two arts organizations that helped coordinate the study in Fairfield County. “But even with the severe under-representation and the lack of participation, we still have this number of $235 million, which is mindboggling.”

Healthy numbers

In Fairfield County, 72 of 311 nonprofit arts groups shared financial data for the report. They include the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, the Chamber Players of the Greenwich Symphony, the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, the Stamford Museum and the Charles Ives Authority for the Performing Arts in Danbury.

“One of our goals in the future is to try to encourage greater participation from our cultural resources,” Scalis said. “But these numbers still say that we are very healthy.”

Advocates say while some legislators might still view the suburban symphony orchestra or the downtown art center as a luxury during times of tight budgets, more policymakers are coming to recognize the nonprofit arts are essential for creating jobs, attracting tourism and fueling industries such as entertainment and hospitality.

“When you think tourism, you think of dollars moving through the economy, but when you think of arts and culture, you tend to think about quality of life,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican who represents Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton. “But tourism has long been a beneficiary of the arts; the majority of people who come to Connecticut come because of arts and culture.”

The report, which assembles data from 113 cities, 115 counties and 20 states, shows that Fairfield is in the middle range of comparably sized regions when it comes to the economic impact of its arts groups.

For example, Fairfield County with its 945,000 residents, has a stronger arts economy than Delaware, with its $150 million in arts-related economic activity, and Westchester County in nearby New York, with its $172 million in arts-related economic activity.

But Fairfield County falls well short of San Francisco, a city of 850,000, where nonprofit arts and culture groups generated $1.4 billion in economic activity. Fairfield County falls behind Indianapolis, also a city of 850,000, with an arts-related economic impact of $444 million.

The report does not include commercial enterprises such as motion pictures or Broadway shows. When this “big art” is grouped with nonprofits, the arts become a $730 billion industry, occupying a larger share of the Gross National Product than tourism or transportation, the report said.

Commercial art businesses were left out of the report because authors wanted to show government investment in small arts groups can produce big returns.

The report could not come at a better time for nonprofit arts groups in Connecticut, who were fearing cuts as a result of the state budget crisis.

The good news is the budget signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Halloween keeps funding for the arts level at $1.5 million. The state receives $800,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support nonprofit arts.

“The arts impact our economy more now than they ever have before,” Boucher said.

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342