From the Editor

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 20, 2009

Meet the Creatives

“Art is the handmaid of human good.”

Maybe the “handmaid” thing is a clue, but chances are, few people would associate the sentiment above with the early 19th century, let alone the birth of the Industrial Age in America. Even fewer would imagine that the phrase was chosen by a mayor as a city motto. But for more than a century and a half, “Art is the handmaid of human good” has appeared on the official seal of the city of Lowell, Massachusetts.

The origin of the phrase is unknown; given its application in a city that was dependent upon the skill of its millworkers (especially young women — handmaids indeed), the motto is often interpreted as a tribute to manual skills or a celebration of craft. Its real meaning is of course much broader.

We had only to listen to the recent Congressional debates about stimulus funds to understand how far art has since fallen in the political firmament. Too many politicians and policy-makers view support of the arts as a nonessential indulgence: art-for-art’s-sake is frivolous when Art has lost his job and can’t feed little Artie, Jr.

And so it may be a surprise that among the greatest champions of the arts are some economists and politicians — people who have not lost sight of the critical relationship between art and industry that was commonly acknowledged by our 19th-century forebears. They understand that support of the arts is not indulgence; it is vital to fostering creative thinking and the innovation that fuels our economic system. They know that if there were no art education, there would be no Apple. In this crowd, “creative” has moved from adjective to noun, and the creatives are those people who generate real and meaningful economic activity — jobs, revenue, products, services — through organizations and enterprises that are based in the arts: cultural institutions, of course, but also advertising firms, publishing houses, videogame developers, design firms, and countless others.

The focus on the Creative Economy is relatively recent — so new, in fact, that researchers are still analyzing data that will help us understand its mechanisms fully. Economist Richard Florida introduced the concept to the public with his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, which famously suggested that cities with active arts communities, significant gay populations, ethnic diversity, and tolerance of bohemian lifestyles are more apt to have a competitive edge. The subsequent rush to promote local manifestations of the Creative Economy threatened to join pedestrian malls, festival marketplaces, and convention centers in the long, failed lineup of desperate measures by beleaguered economic development and planning directors.

But if we set aside the temptation to promote the Creative Economy by artificially isolating it through zoning and well-intended regulations into cultural districts that are the equivalent of petting zoos, we will find that the creatives are already all around us — invisible only because no one previously bothered to identify them, let alone count them. Some have built large businesses with impressive staffs and revenues; some are employed by larger entities that are part of other economic sectors. And still others — many others — work successfully in small businesses and proprietorships that offer a model for new entrepreneurial behaviors: nimble, fluid, collaborative.

Support of the arts is not indulgence; it is vital to fostering creative thinking and the innovation that fuels our economic system.

With our large, young, talented workforce, an impressive array of schools and institutions that prepare and sustain creative workers, and an established base of technological innovators who understand the value that right-brain thinking can add to left-brain processes, this region is perhaps better prepared than any other in the country to develop a Creative Economy of global standing. This isn’t art for art’s sake. It’s art for our sake.

One Response

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  1. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:33 am

    […] “Meet the Creatives” [Fall 2009], editor Elizabeth Padjen expressed succinctly the position that the Commonwealth […]

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