Finding Synergies among Creativity, Place, and Economics

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Finding Synergies among Creativity, Place, and Economics
Tom Borrup, Principal, Creative Community Builders

In this talk I will address ways that promoting creativity in geographic places has simultaneously produced other positive impacts on their communities. Many creative efforts have helped to reinvigorate places on a physical level while contributing to local economies, fostering human development, and strengthening the fabric of civil society, among other benefits. Some of these simultaneous results, or synergies, have been intentional, some have not. I will argue that it is important to make more deliberate efforts to find synergies so as to build complete, functional, and equitable communities. By not recognizing or attempting to achieve multiple benefits, we are wasting precious effort and resources, and excluding many people from these benefits. When I refer to community in this talk, I mean geographic places such as an urban neighborhood or district, or entire town or city.
Let me begin by describing the general area that is widely known as ‘culture-led regeneration,’ a term typically referring to economic development or revitalization. This label of culture-led regeneration suggests that culture–usually in the more narrow sense of formal art is tic practice sand organizations–serves a leading catalyst in the positive transformation of a geographic community. The term culture-led regeneration is used in many parts of the world by practitioners and theorists. However, I would argue that culture is sometimes the leader but more accurately a partner in the regeneration process. No one domain or area of practice, whether arts, culture, or urban planning, can possesses all the skills, capacities, and resources to fully engage in a successful community building. I’ll outline five broad areas where I have seen culture-led regeneration at work and present some images and short stories of specific projects and communities that illustrate each.
1) Growing the creative economy
I’m sure you’re familiar with some initiatives that have been employed to enhance the growing realm of creative industries. Often clustered to strengthen their potential and impact, creative industries include arts and culture along with advertising, architecture, crafts, design, fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, R&D, software, toys and games, TV and radio, and in some places culinary arts. An example I visited last year is known as the Cable Factory in Helsinki, Finland. It is an enormous industrial building built in the early 20th Century to manufacture steel cables, and later became an early headquarters for the telecommunications company Nokia.
Owned by the city and redeveloped by an organization of creative groups, the Cable Factory (in Finnish: Kaapeli) now houses nearly 100 small creative enterprises including dance companies, small museums, research firms and a mix of both market-based and not-for-profit entities. Large flexible spaces within it accommodate conferences, festivals, and large events. The co-location of so many creative people and firms produces a stimulating atmosphere that encourages and supports creative entrepreneurs. While not all the firms are within a similar industry, this clustering – still promotes innovation and development of new ideas.
2) Re-invigorating under-utilized, abandoned or outdated spaces
American urbanist, Jane Jacobs wrote 50 years ago: “New ideas must use old buildings.” Artists, who have lots of new ideas, often take up work in older buildings maybe because they are available at lower cost or maybe their aesthetic nature helps incubate ideas – or both. Often these are former factories or warehouse buildings, outdated or abandoned retail spaces, decommissioned military bases or in some cases older offices, hotels, or even smaller houses in towns with declining populations. I’ll show you one example of how a small city of 25,000 population in the U.S., Paducah, Kentucky, created an environment inviting to artists and how these artists then generated an economic revival in the city.
3) Activating public spaces
I’ll show you an example of a remarkable public art project that draws as many as 100,000 people for each event to a once nearly vacant downtown in what was a declining U.S. industrial city. WaterFire is an event that takes place about 20 times per season in Providence, Rhode Island, draws people from near and far. Fire baskets along a couple miles of riverway winding through the downtown, together with music and other activities engage all the senses. Lively and enriching cultural activities taking place in public spaces – spaces where locals and visitors may have been uncomfortable or unfamiliar before – can bring new economic and social life to a community. In this city artists and arts organizations, cultural festivals, and other activities have produced results far beyond the success of WaterFire. Clusters of artist live/work spaces, galleries, and other venues have also helped to reinvigorate the city 365 days of the year.
4) Cities and major global corporations are increasingly competing for the brightest talent.
Richard Florida, in Rise of the Creative Class, and other works, has elevated the international awareness of the importance of culturally active places – places that are receptive to new people and new ideas, to diversity and creativity. Culture-led regeneration often includes creating places with good aesthetics, welcoming cultures, and active lifestyles. I’ll show you a project in the U.S. city of Seattle where an organization known as Artspace Projects has mixed the rehab of an older industrial building with new construction, to create affordable live/work spaces for artists. This is one of about 30 such artist live/work spaces created by Artspace in the U.S. during the past 25 years. A recent research study by Anne Gadwa examined a number of Artspace developments in several US cities. She found that artists living and working within these buildings – and the neighborhoods surrounding them – enjoyed several positive benefits. Artists, and arts organizations, themselves benefitted from stable, affordable space. They became increasingly invested in the associations of residents within the buildings. Artists found creative and artistic growth that positively affected their careers. Outside the buildings, the artists were more engaged in their communities, and the connections they built, as well as the density of cultural activity in and around the buildings, strongly complemented other community building initiatives.
5) Boost the global profile or reputation of cities, regions, or even nations
Places that have the ingredients that I’ve described above generate a buzz. Not only do they attract people but they attract media attention and reputations by word-of-mouth, or word-of-social-media. People want to travel there, are curious about what makes these places “cool”, and ultimately want to invest there. Individuals might invest by relocating to these communities, buying or renting a home, starting a business, investing their capital. The buzz has to be backed up by reality. While most people want to invest in something solid, the reality and the buzz can grow simultaneously. The greater the reality, the greater the buzz. The greater the buzz, the greater the reality. I’ll show you an unlikely example of North Adams, Massachusetts, a rural, former industrial community in the northeastern U.S. This fairly remote 18th century mill town had vast, abandoned industrial structures, some almost 200 year sold. Since 1999 it has transformed into one of the major centers of contemporary art in the U.S. Almost 200 miles from New York City, it sits in a remote valley where it takes advantage of nearby colleges, tourism traffic, and savvy people who have created remarkable contemporary art exhibition space and re-built the economy and image of the community. The now only 12-year-old Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art or “MassMOCA” not only attracts some of the world’s top artists, and art lovers from far and wide, but has attracted artists and creative entrepreneurs – and their start-up enterprises – to live and work in this now active community in this beautiful valley.
Many of you here may be involved in culture-led regeneration as artists, through creating space for artists, and as people who support one or more of the activities I listed above. In pursuing this work, one of the most important things you can do is to think and act more holistically. Perhaps it is more true in the West, and certainly in the US, but many people and organizations focus their efforts in just one of these areas. They may do very good work. However, what they too often fail to do is to recognize, appreciate, or collaborate with others who work in another dimension of community building. Sometimes they even compete with or exclude their potential collaborators and may even do harm to other important aspects of community building. What I want to emphasize in this talk is that it is urgent in pursuit of culture-led regeneration to do so with a broader purpose in mind, to actively look for the synergies that can be achieved. I’ll describe some of the benefits of culture-led regeneration that can come from synergies, and that have been observed by many researchers and practitioners.
1) Building horizontal social networks
Researchers from Australia, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Taiwan, and other places have illustrated ways in which cultural districts (or creative clusters) and cultural festivals both require and generate personal and professional networks that bridge various sectors, domains, cultures, and economic strata. They tend to cross (what we often call) silos in constructive ways. People who ordinarily wouldn’t interact and collaborate, must do so for festivals and creative clusters to succeed – and they are strengthened through the process. These growing horizontal networks become important for communities to function effectively.
2) Generating social capital, collective efficacy
Functional social relations (social capital) and the capacity of people to take action together around mutual interests, known as collective efficacy, are essential ingredients in civil society. Social cohesion and the empowerment of individuals to take an active role in their communities is a frequent by-product of cultural activities – especially community-based and cutting-edge arts that stress active engagement and creative innovation.
3) Expanding receptivity to diversity and creativity
Communities that embrace risk-taking artists and entrepreneurs, and are exposed to a wide variety of forms of cultural expression, become more receptive to new ideas and to new people. Genuine curiosity about new and different ways of thinking and about different cultures, as well as valuing creativity and greater appreciation for multiple styles of creative expression help prepare communities gain from their ethnic and cultural diversity. Such communities experience less social stress and are more innovative and entrepreneurial.
4) Producing pride in place/place identity
As individuals feel more valued by their communities and are more engaged, they feel a stronger sense of connection to place. They develop stronger bonds with others and foster a greater sense of pride. The unique nature of their neighborhood, district, or city becomes more evident. They take pride in that distinctiveness and develop stronger ways of expressing their identity.
5) Improving education and critical thinking
Considerable research has affirmed some of the ways that art and music improve cognitive abilities in people of all ages, although most of the emphasis has been on young people. Specific training in the arts, and art-making practices, focus attention on critical thinking. Higher levels of aesthetic sophistication – capacity to discern patterns, colors, and heightening observation skills – also have a direct impact on analytical and critical capacities.
6) Developing local leadership
Individuals stepping up their involvement and expressing their sense of pride in their community are better prepared and more likely to emerge as leaders. They are appreciated and supported, and they can employ the social cohesion within their community to build a base for their leadership. Research and theory, largely from Canada, demonstrate how “cultural citizenship” translates into a variety of other forms of civic engagement. A program in the U.S. known as Animating Democracy uses these strategies to ramp up civic dialogue and involvement in civic issues through artistic and cultural activities.
The outcomes of a more holistic approach to arts and cultural work can include the creation of quality places, robust and innovative economies, active citizenry, and the development of well-rounded, smart human beings who step into a variety of leadership roles in their communities. And, these are just some of the ways that our work as cultural practitioners and leaders can find synergy with other goals and effectively contribute in even greater ways to our communities. Some of us may focus on building social capital or civic engagement; others may focus on economic development or aesthetic improvement. Still others undertake efforts to increase pride in place and to projecting a strong identity. There are many other professionals and organized efforts working to build better communities. They may think about how their work contributes to some aspect of quality of life, but they may not fully embrace the other actors on this stage. It is important that we do so, and that we continuously look for synergies – ways of working that create greater benefits – as in the equation: 1+1 = 3.
A recent study by a major US foundation and a research organization surveyed people in 26 US cities over a three-year time period asking them about what made them feel connected to the ity they lived in, what were the primary things they liked about their cities. Three things came out on top consistently: first, quality aesthetics as in well-designed places with public art and green spaces; second, environments or cultures who make them feel welcome, and third, the availability of interesting activities. These are all things that the arts contribute – or can contribute – to their communities. Artists possess unique skills, and cultural activities have powerful tools to connect people and elevate their thinking. Let’s put these skills and tools to work in as many creative ways as we can to bring the greatest possible value to our communities.