Wednesday, July 25, 2007


On July 18th the State House hosted a gathering on Vermont’s Creative Economy, attended by 200 people from all walks of life. As part of the day’s activities, the Speaker of the House, Gaye Symington, spoke and during her speech offered these words: ”the Creative Economy is not just about decoration.”

With all due respect, Madam Speaker, I disagree.

I’m sure most people have heard the story of Prime Minister Churchill’s famous response, at the height of the blitz, to a ranking member of Britain’s war department who proposed closing the theaters and all other “non-essential” businesses in London. “Good God, man, what are we fighting FOR, then?!”

I take Speaker Symington’s remark about decoration as a metaphor for the arts and culture in general since yes, literally, she’s right—the Creative Economy is not just about “decoration.” The most compelling aspect of the Creative Economy is that it offers clear targets to policy makers who are trying to figure out how to best make strategic investments in areas that benefit the public. The Creative Economy forces the public at large to discuss with each other how they want their communities to function. Part of that functionality has to do with housing, streetscapes, and job-creation; part of it has to do with schools and how well they prepare our children; and part of it has to do with recreation and art and culture and the opportunities to build “social capital” in a place.

I maintain that one of the clearest indicators that a place is primed for investment, for job creation, and for raising a family, is the degree to which its cultural life is supported locally. In order for a cultural life to thrive, there must be opportunity, recreational outlets, good schools preparing kids for jobs and for life, and other attributes that attract entrepreneurs and young marrieds and provide them with the wherewithal to call that place “headquarters” or “home.”

Where most or all of these conditions exist, there you are most likely to find a thriving cultural life, (this is key) and vice versa! It has become accepted fact that in so many cases, art and culture has led the way to the revitalization of the community. Artists discover a community, and move into its marginal structures especially if they are large and cheap. After a while, collectors and “groupies” show up, followed soon after by restaurants, galleries, and other community service providers (like laundromats and hardware stores). Following these come more infrastructure and “business development” investment, including better schools. Soon you have a thriving, integrated community.

From Soho to North Adams; Santa Fe to Burlington, Savannah to Brandon, we in the cultural community have seen this pattern over and over again. To us, metaphorically speaking, it IS about the decoration.

But that is only part of why I disagree with Speaker Symington. The other part is a little more mundane. The arts and cultural community need new funds for investing, for marketing and promoting its products and services, for developing its future leaders and sustaining its core institutions. As a sector within the Creative Economy, Art and Culture is far more sophisticated than it has ever been. We are creative collaborators. We are problem-solvers. We are trained to look at the unknown and revel in its possiblities. For us, a blank canvas, a blank score sheet, an empty, dark stage is an opportunity to try something new—to explore new cultures, new ways of communicating. And where the engineer is creative in that if you have a problem he/she will find a way to solve it, an artist is creative in that he/she will look at the engineer’s solution and say, “Cool—what else will it do?”

That approach is what sustains our popular culture today. Robert Moog took the contraption that created electronic tones and made the first functional synthesizer. But it was Walter (now Wendy) Carlos who created Switched On Bach and spawned a mega-industry that remains the United States’ number one export—popular culture.

But we have one problem…our history of marginalizing our artists and our culture because their outputs are considered “a luxury” by policy makers. Why is this? Is it because we have allowed the debate about the value of the arts to be centered on “how expensive it is” instead of “how many benefits are reaped as a result of investing in it?”

Value-added and niche-product Agriculture has a champion in Vermont in the multi-million dollar Agency of Agriculture. The money is there to be invested in ways that support “creative economy approaches to agriculture.” All it takes is a little political will.

But not so for the arts and cultural sector. We are historically under-resourced, and forced to compete among ourselves for an ever-dwindling supply of corporate and individual contributors. I for one am tired of this approach. We have solutions that can help our prisons, our state hospital, our schools, our communities, and our souls. If nothing else, the Creative Economy HAS to be about Art and Culture.

It’s like the social worker in South Bronx said 10 years ago: “We have all the money we need to fix the drug and homeless problem. What we are lacking are the aesthetic things that make life worth living—that make a community care enough about itself to make a difference. How about a garden with beautiful flowers? How about some art?”

For him, it is all about the decoration. For us too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Welcoming the Creative Economy

A little more than 9 years ago I had the pleasure of representing Vermont at a small conference at the Tanglewood Center for the Performing Arts in Lenox, Massachusetts. The keynote speaker was John Williams (perhaps the most respected and successful composer/arranger/conductors of all time, especially for films) and in the course of his talk he introduced the phrase “creative economy” to me and the 50 or so other attendees from all over New England. Mr. Williams was surprised that at a reception earlier he had overheard a member of the economic development “establishment” in the Massachusetts State House wonder why, despite all indicators elsewhere in the state that showed the Massachusetts economy tanking, Berkshire County seemed immune. “Wasn’t it obvious?” asked Williams. “It’s because the Arts Organizations in Berkshire County have formed the backbone of what I refer to as its Creative Economy.”

Fast forward nine years—past two regional studies conducted by The New England Council (a regional Chamber of Commerce), numerous regional gatherings from Maine to Connecticut, and, in Vermont, thousands of hours of community-based planning meetings held in more than a dozen towns and villages in Vermont alone, not to mention additional work done locally throughout Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts—and the phrase has finally become a movement.

We can thank Paul Costello and the Vermont Council on Rural Development for that. For all the time I and the Vermont Arts Council have invested in promoting the Creative Economy, we couldn’t have done half as good a job as putting it in front of policy makers in Vermont as Paul and the VCRD have done.

On July 18th they will showcase what the Creative Economy really is in a conference entitled “Advancing Vermont’s Creative Economy”. The daylong “summit” at the Vermont State House will celebrate models of community success and explore how Vermont can best understand and adopt policies and programs that not only improve the state’s economic situation, but do so in a way that enhances and protects the quality of life Vermonters have come to value almost above all else.

The Creative Economy is not a Thing—it’s more like a state of mind. It is the set of conditions that must exist in a place in order for there to be a thriving sense of community with all that word implies—a good school system, good jobs, accessible cultural and recreational amenities, people who care about their neighbors, and about the condition of the world at large, and so on. And it is the result of what happens in a community when all of those amenities (schools, cultural institutions, etc.) are allowed to flourish: entrepreneurs, young marrieds, wealthy retirees, social engineers, are ATTRACTED to such places. They create jobs and families, build social networks, care for each other and foster a sense of shared values that gets passed on to future generations.

Last week I got an email from the head of our National State Arts Agency Association. He wrote, “The not-for-profit arts world is engaged in entrepreneurial adapting and hybridizing … to address the always increasing relative expense of labor-intensive endeavors in a technological society, to diversify revenues, and to aggregate capital in ways that enable it to compete with for-profit leisure time providers.”

(I actually spent some time deciphering this DC-speak) He’s saying what we in Vermont already know—or will certainly find out on July 18th. We have to adapt to survive. We have to identify and welcome new partners. We have to identify and adopt new practices and procedures. We have to encourage our institutions to develop what social scientists refer to as “a culture of change.” We have to welcome new ideas and not be afraid of them.

We have to welcome the Creative Economy.