Monday, June 6, 2011

Creative Economy: 13 Years of Avoiding Whiney Things

A couple of weeks ago, before all the brouhaha hit the Kansas Arts Commission, I attended the Creative Communities Exchange at MassMOCA in North Adams, MA. What a difference a 13 years makes!  Hosted by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) and Berkshire Creative, it was a two-day celebration of New England’s creative economy in a location that has become synonymous with the term.

In the summer of 1998 at Tanglewood, then-Boston Pops Music Director John Williams gave a talk to about 70 arts and business leaders from around New England.  The arts community had been through a major national crisis a few years earlier, the result of the Sen. Helms-inspired, Speaker Newt Gingrich-led Congressional effort to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.   John Williams presented a concept that had for a few years been gaining traction in Europe.  There was a new force at work in our communities,  one that most people were familiar with, but that was difficult to define and measure by most economic theorists and policy analysts.

Williams called it the “Creative Economy.”  To paraphrase his words, he said, the Creative Economy was what happens to a place when the arts are encouraged to thrive.  Not only is there an immediate and measurable economic benefit when public dollars are invested in the arts, but there is a far more lasting, though less easy to measure, improvement in the quality of life in a place.  People living in a creative community tend to care more about the aesthetics of their built spaces.  They care more about the quality of their schools.  They care more about the degree to which school-children are engaged in school and civic life.  They tend to trust the social contract that is implicit in the relationship between taxation and social services.  They tend to shop locally and support their own community’s efforts at revitalization.

At the time, the Berkshires had ridden out the economic downturns of the mid-1980s and early 1990s fairly well and, with the notable exception of Pittsfield (the county seat), had little difficulty with its recovery.  Why?  Because the significant presence of the arts throughout the length and breadth of the county was attracting visitors, wealthy second home-owners, and—most tellingly—entrepreneurs who, with a modem and a keyboard, could build their start-up from anywhere in the country so why NOT start up in the Berkshires?  From Great Barrington to Williamstown, from West Stockbridge to Otis, Berkshire County boasted nearly the same number of arts organizations in all of Vermont, and some of them were among the most prestigious organizations of their kind in the world. Collectively, they were an economic developer’s dream.

Today, 13 years later, even Pittsfield has joined its sister communities in Berkshire County and is, as a result of its mayor's eight-year commitment to investing in the arts, well on the road to recovery.

It was necessary, Maestro Williams concluded, for business and industry in New England, to understand the relationships that exist between and among all the sectors (public, private, and nonprofit) to support the Creative Economy as it grows and develops throughout the region.   Over the years different states, and even different regions within states, developed their own particular “brand” of Creative Economy. 

In Vermont, for example, most people think of the Creative Economy in terms of value-added agricultural food-products that are intimately connected to Vermont’s identity as a rural, slow-foods-oriented area.  In Boston and Providence, the Creative Economy is more closely identified with the technology industries—particularly in the areas of medical and entertainment services. 

Higher education was increasingly recognized for its role in shaping the 21st century workforce, and it, in turn, began to sound the alarm to policy-makers about the our K-12 school system and its inability to prepare our children for those demands.

In all, a lot of great work has occurred in the 13 years since the term took root in New England’s fertile soil.  Two are worth mentioning.

First is MassMOCA itself.  We visited the newly-reopened converted mill in North Adams 13 years ago and while the museum was magnificent, the town of North Adams itself hadn’t quite caught up to the changes that were happening.  Now, it is safe to say, North Adams has made serious headway.  There were at least four restaurants between the Holiday Inn and the museum itself about 2 blocks away, and numerous galleries, studios, and small businesses dotting the downtown as well as a new (or apparently revitalized) Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.  The art at Mass MOCA was amazing (as usual) but it was no more amazing, from my perspective, than the town itself.

The second was the award given to Vermont’s own Robert McBride and RAMP (Rockingham Art and Museum Project) during the gathering.  With the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chair Rocco Landesman in attendance, and in front of more than 250 professionals from all over New England, Robert received the first “Creative Economy Award” presented by the NEFA.  Robert has been laboring for nearly 20 years in Bellows Falls, Vermont, to restore the center of Bellows Falls using the arts as a catalyst for business development and community revitalization.  That he was recognized in this setting, by a group of 250 of his closest professional colleagues was an honor of great significance for him and for Vermont.  Congratulations (again!) to Robert and his partners in the town of Rockingham and the Village of Bellows Falls. It is a well-deserved honor.

Best of all was what Robert said as he accepted the award.

“If you have creative people around the table with you, you’ll do creative things.  If you have whiney people around the table, you’ll do whiney things.  Ask yourself, what kind of table would you like to be at?”

Well put, Robert….

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