Monday, November 6, 2006

The Creative Economy

Among the most common questions I am asked is “What’s this I hear about the Creative Economy?” Since 1998 the Arts Council has slowly and steadily tracked the network of towns, villages, neighborhoods, and people all over Vermont who, through their own experience and hard work, are looking at ways to re-invigorate themselves through this “new” sector.

Depending on whether I’m chatting with friends or close colleagues, giving a lecture at a school, or talking to community service organization members, I have three different definitions of the Creative Economy to suit the moment.

The simplest definition is based on one that Robert McBride of Bellows Falls uses. His basic point is that the Creative Economy is the result of fun, creative people sitting around a table thinking up fun, creative stuff to work on together. The implication is that the more fun and creative it is, the more it will be valued by those who experience it (neighbors, local business, etc.), and the more people will be attracted to do more of it.

The most complex definition is that which was created by the New England Council. It identifies Creative Industries (private and nonprofit sector entities whose services and products are the result of creative activities); Creative Workers (the individuals in any industry who are the originators of creative output—they don’t necessarily work for a creative industry, but their creative output certainly has value: think chip designers for IBM); and finally, Creative Communities, which are the geographical locations where fun, creative people tend to congregate (live, work, play) and attract entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.

The definition I like to use most often is in between the two. It is those economic and social conditions that have to exist in a place in order for that place to support a thriving network of cultural institutions and activities. It is also the economic and social result of what happens to a place when a thriving network of cultural institutions and activities is encouraged to move in and, simply speaking, set up shop.

The creative economy, therefore, is not something new. Nor is it something necessarily unique. In fact it isn’t really a “thing” at all. It is a dynamic process that tracks the ebb and flow of human life and returns it with interest to the people that are working to improve it.

We in Vermont are blessed with a multitude of places that are ripe for generous, even copious applications of “the Creative Economy.” The Vermont Council on Rural Development has a statewide project underway that, when complete, will have provided significant technical support to 14 towns who have expressed a desire to explore whether it will fit into their long range community/economic development plans.

And by now everyone knows of the informal Creative Economy “Poster Towns” of Vergennes, Brandon, Brattleboro, Bennington and Bellows Falls. But don’t forget White River Junction, St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Rutland, Bennington, Hardwick, Morrisville. I even hear murmurings from Manchester, Springfield, Bradford, Newport/Derby, Enosburg Falls, the Islands, Waterbury, and dozens of others.

The list could go on and on. Why? Because the Creative Economy is what Vermont is all about—and has been for generations. Think about the Precision Economy at the end of the 19th Century. Think of our landscape. Think of heritage—those historical and human artifacts that keep “drawing us in close.” It’s too simple to say that the Creative Economy is just about arts and cultural institutions, because it’s not. Nor is it just about jobs or schools or faith or recreation. It isn’t even about skiing and maple syrup and fall foliage and cheese and ice cream.

(Okay, we’ll talk about ice cream separately, shall we?) It’s really about all of those things. And we get to choose, community by community, town by town, how to make it matter to us. Because, trust me, it does matter to us. All of us.

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