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.