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.

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