When creativity is your stock in trade, there is strength in numbers.
Elizabeth Padjen: I’ve come to think of the Creative Economy as the purloined economy — something that’s been hidden in plain view. It’s been with us for a long time but hasn’t really been considered a cohesive economic sector until recently. As a result, there seems to be a lot of confusion about definitions — everyone seems to have a different opinion. There’s the cultural-tourism piece, which has to some degree hijacked much of the public understanding of the Creative Economy in this state. There’s the “applied art” definition — putting creativity and the arts to some functional purpose. That would include architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, product designers. But it also includes advertising, film, videogames, and media — the reach of this sector into all aspects of our lives is remarkable. And of course there is an enormous population of what might be called “embedded creatives” — the people who are tallied up as working in the financial or life-sciences sector, but are writers or designers on staff. What accounts for this confusion? What exactly is the Creative Economy?
Beth Siegel: The concept is relatively new. Even a decade ago, people tended to look at the importance of the arts and culture in an economy in terms of economic-impact studies — such as reports comparing the presence of cultural institutions to a sports stadium. In the late ’90s, Mt. Auburn Associates was commissioned by The New England Council and New England Foundation for the Arts to look at the cultural economy of the entire region. We believed it was a sector that should be examined as an industry, just as we look at biotech or the software industries. Somehow that led to the terminology “creative economy.” We defined the Creative Economy as having three elements: creative industries, a creative workforce, and creative communities. We started to look at industries in which creative content defines competitiveness — much the same way people have defined technology industries broadly to include biotech and computers and software, because technology is the common competitive element of those industries.
The idea of innovation and creativity and entrepreneurship as a core part of the Massachusetts economy is not new. Michael Dukakis was promoting this back in the 1970s. What is new is that we’re looking at a set of industries where the creative content is the defining element. That is where we get some blurriness in thinking about the word “creativity.” But there’s really no right or wrong definition.
Karl Baehr: The common element among all the various definitions of the Creative Economy is not only the presence of innovation but also the power of ideas. Our economy is getting lighter: we’re going from steel to software; we’re seeing physical GDP decrease; patent activity has increased 75 percent from 10 years ago. Innovation and the ability to monetize ideas are at the heart of just about all of these definitions.
Anita Walker: Something else that distinguishes this industry is that it embraces the nonprofit sector, which other industries typically do not. So our symphonies and our theaters are part of an industry that also includes a commercial or profit-making sector.
The common element among all the various definitions of the Creative Economy is not only the presence of innovation but also the power of ideas. Innovation and the ability to monetize ideas are at the heart of all of these definitions. Karl Baehr PhD
Elizabeth Padjen: My impression is that people initially thought of the Creative Economy as comprising only the nonprofits, the cultural institutions. The recent push has been to make them understand that there is also a for-profit component. Is that dichotomy still there?
Beth Siegel: When we began our work, we realized that the old divide between nonprofit and commercial really didn’t make sense anymore. There are too many hybrids — such as museums running retail shops — and the sectors have merged. For example, we tend to think of the media industry as for-profit, but it includes National Geographic and NPR, which are nonprofits. The focus is the product, not whether it’s delivered by a for-profit or nonprofit.
Karl Baehr: The business functions are essentially the same whether it’s a for-profit or a nonprofit entity. Some of the mechanics and strategies are different, of course, but you still have to operate effectively.
Anita Walker: The nonprofits enthusiastically embraced this broader notion of the Creative Economy because they understood the value of being perceived as a significant part of the economy by state legislators and those who fund their work. Being seen as a real economic engine rather than just a nicety has made an enormous difference over the last several years.
Nancy Fitzpatrick: We’ve been lucky in the Berkshires to have a long tradition of art and culture. Everybody there has come to realize, especially over the last 40 or 50 years, that our nonprofit cultural organizations contribute incredibly to our economic vitality, and also to fostering the creative communities. But not everyone is aware of the role that the for-profit creative businesses play. It’s still really important to bring these two sectors together in people’s minds. For years and years, state government has been geared toward a different kind of industry, and a lot of politicians and policy-makers still don’t understand what the for-profit creative industry contributes. There’s a lot of work to be done.
I’ve recently become aware of the importance of homebased businesses to the Creative Economy and the economy as a whole. My parents started a home-based business, Country Curtains [now a mail-order company with retail shops in 12 states]; I confess I had to be convinced that it is in fact part of the Creative Economy. The Creative Economy doesn’t necessarily develop products only for the most sophisticated people. It also produces things that mainstream people feel comfortable with and love, things that are sold at a very affordable price. We really have to embrace everybody. Tattoo artists. Doily makers. Anybody who can make a living by doing something that is creative.
Main Streets with cultural institutions and artist live/work spaces have intrinsic value as vibrant places to live. But they also have an economic value in that they make a community that is attractive to talented people and, therefore, to employers — some of whom might not themselves be part of the Creative Economy. Anita Walker
Jason Schupbach: We’ve seen a sea change in just the last year around the way this state addresses the Creative Economy. We already had one of the most advanced Creative Economy policies in the country supporting the nonprofit sector through the work of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Now we are also developing a complementary policy around the for-profit creative industries, because they often do have different needs. That’s what resulted in the creation of my job. I have counterparts in the Office of Business Development who focus on the manufacturing, life sciences, IT, clean energy, and defense industry sectors. By creating my job, Governor Patrick has said the creative-based businesses, such as entertainment — which includes film, TV, videogames, music, and publishing — design, digital media, and advertising businesses, are every bit as important to the state’s economic growth as those other industries. We want to make sure that the for-profit creative industries are aware of the resources we have for them right now, and we want to understand what we should be doing in the future to develop these parts of the economy.
Beate Becker: I believe the more important debate is the question of creativity versus innovation, and why the Creative Economy is different from an Innovation Economy. I really want to stress that, when we’re talking about the Creative Economy, the creativity is about creative content. For example, engineers are creative, but they’re not producing creative content. Creative content is based in culture or the senses: song, drawing, theater. The economist Richard Florida has brought attention to the notion of a “creative class,” but his class is so inclusive that he’s talking more about a knowledge-based class. He includes accountants and lawyers, who certainly use their minds, but are not necessarily creative workers. They’re different from actors or graphic designers.
Elizabeth Padjen: Along with the idea of a creative class, we have to give credit to Richard Florida for popularizing the understanding that creativity has a physical component — that some places nurture creativity better than others.
Anita Walker: Our understanding of what we call “creative communities” is already expanding. Main Streets with cultural institutions and artist live/work spaces have intrinsic value as vibrant places to live. But they also have an economic value in that they make a community that is attractive to talented people and, therefore, to the companies who want to employ them, companies that will bring jobs and wealth to a community. And of course some of those companies might not themselves be part of the Creative Economy sector.
Elizabeth Padjen: Some cities have been quick to understand this. New Bedford, for example, has been getting great press in the last year as a community that is trying to develop its creative sector as a way of defining itself. Matt, what were the roots of that initiative?
Matthew Morrissey: About three years ago, we were pitching a foreign company that was considering New Bedford for a new manufacturing facility that would employ more than 600 people. We were on the short list and had developed a package of incentives that made us as competitive as any other place in the world, really. Halfway into the presentation, the site-location consultant stood up and said, “Wait a second. I get all of this, but I’m originally from Newton, and I can’t imagine building a workforce in the city of New Bedford.” We had it all, but we were saddled with an outdated perception of the city. And ultimately, we lost out.
So we had to do our homework. The mayor and I sat down and asked, What is it about that experience that encapsulates the challenge facing New Bedford? We don’t sugarcoat the reality of a city like New Bedford, but we wanted to figure out how we as a city could use our assets to better tell our story. What came forward was the sense of place.
The idea of the Creative Economy works pretty naturally for New Bedford. For 10 years now, AHA! [Art, History & Architecture, a cultural organization] has been promoting the possibilities of New Bedford to the scores of people who come to its free Downtown Cultural Nights on a regular basis. And when people sense possibility, you inspire their imagination. It is a very important part of retaining folks who are more educated and more prone to civic engagement on their block, in their neighborhood, and at other levels of government. If you can tell that story to a large enough population, eventually you hit a couple of investors, a couple of site locators, and CEOs.
The direct economic impact of businesses in this sector, however we define it, is real. We have 48,000 jobs and 2,300 businesses in the city, and about 10 percent of that can be attributed, in a broad sense, to the Creative Economy. The Creative Economy isn’t going to become our largest employer. But we know that it can be an enormously important, if not the most important, inducer of job creation in the city of New Bedford.
Anita Walker: This has important implications for public policy: cities like New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Worcester — and, of course, Boston — have recognized that they want the Creative Economy to be part of their city plan and have named individuals who are part of city government to coordinate these efforts. They understand that it’s about business development, but it’s also about community development. You really need a holistic approach.
Nancy Fitzpatrick: Something that we’re grappling with in the Berkshires is the fact that there is no leadership. In cities, you have a mayor who sets an agenda and pushes for it; you can go talk to this one person. But in the Berkshires, we have two cities and 31 towns, and the towns usually have volunteer leadership. There might be one overworked, underpaid town manager, aided by salt-of-theearth elected people who are doing their jobs for nothing. You have to try to raise their awareness about the assets that they often don’t even know they have.
One of the additional challenges that the Berkshires faces is that there’s so much traffic across the borders with Connecticut and New York, in terms of where people live and work, but also in terms of business relationships. We need to find resources that will support this reality. If, for example, we get a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, we can’t use it to support a Connecticut enterprise.
Beate Becker: That is an enormous challenge for New England in general; there are many cross-border opportunities. A maritime trail, for instance, doesn’t stop at the Massachusetts borders. Nor do the clients or employees of a design firm. How do you find something effective that’s more of an overlay, that crosses towns and states without political jurisdiction? And though we don’t have a real answer for that, I think that Massachusetts has started to pursue an effective model, focusing on industries themselves as the overlay. The film industry, for example, cuts across jurisdictions, as does the design industry.
Jason Schupbach: Some regional organizations are stepping into this role. Berkshire Creative is certainly one, and the Creative Economy Association of the North Shore has also emerged as a real leader.
Karl Baehr: I think New England has other challenges. I came to Boston from Santa Fe, which is one of only a handful of UNESCO-designated Creative Cities. I sometimes think people here have to overcome feeling bad about monetizing their creativity. But there are also regional differences that parallel some of the differences Beate mentioned earlier between innovation and creativity. A famous example is Xerox Corporation, back in the beginnings of Silicon Valley in the ’70s. Xerox hired a bunch of high-bohemian, high-tech kids from Berkeley and Stanford. These kids considered themselves artists. It was actually Xerox that invented the mouse, the scanner, the fax machine, the graphical user interface, all that stuff that we’ve attributed to Apple. But the reason Xerox didn’t monetize it was completely cultural — a disconnect between West Coast high-bohemians and East Coast boardroom suits and ties. Xerox would never sell anything called a mouse.
But there’s a corollary to the Xerox story: as we consider what a developed Creative Economy could mean, we should also include its influence on creative thinking in other sectors as well. Can you imagine what the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] would be like if we had a creative thinker in there anywhere? It would be a radically different organization.
When I listen to President Obama talk about green jobs and high-tech as a priority, I wonder why the Creative Economy isn’t being mentioned in that same context. Carole Walton
Beate Becker: I recently visited Switzerland, which is pursuing some very exciting initiatives. The Swiss are actively bringing together schools of art and design with schools of technology, developing joint curricula and joint laboratories, with some extraordinary results. I’m really concerned that we’re not doing enough of that here. Yes, there’s the MIT Media Lab, but that’s one little node. There’s tremendous potential, particularly in the Boston area, for technology companies and design companies to do much more collaboration, both in classroom laboratory settings and in commercial settings.
Nancy Fitzpatrick: We need to take advantage of the naturally collaborative tendency of younger people: I see it in my own children and the people I work with. There are no barriers. There are no secrets. People aren’t possessive about their ideas. They share openly. These young people have a new view, and I think it’s going to have an enormous, positive influence.
Carole Walton: We can try to support that tendency by providing programs, places, resources — whatever it takes — to encourage cross-pollination. The BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority] is currently exploring the development of an incubator building for people working in the creative sector.
Jason Schupbach: Metro Boston has the advantage of having so many creative people in a relatively small area. We’re seeing a lot of “bump” or “spark” events that get all the creative people in a room to see what happens. Real collaborations and business deals are coming out of these meetings.
Elizabeth Padjen: One of the problems we often hear is that the creative people tend not to be joiners. Or they join organizations that were conceived of years ago that don’t recognize the sorts of blurry borders we are discussing here. If we have architects who are also doing textile design and Web design and God knows what else, there’s no God-Knows-What-Else Association for them.
Beate Becker: DIGMA [Design Industry Group of Massachusetts] addresses exactly that problem. It’s an association that’s been heavily supported by the state, with seed funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and the Boston Foundation — a significant investment in what they see as an emerging design cluster. DIGMA’s goal is to bring creative people together to create a common identity and voice, people who are unified by the fact they are all designers despite their individual skills and expertise.
Jason Schupbach: DIGMA is especially valuable because of the exposure it provides for the industry. Most people have no idea of the size or range of the design industry in Massachusetts or how many companies are right here doing amazing work. How many people know that Greater Boston is home to the second-largest product-design community in the country? Look at a firm like Continuum, which is based in West Newton, Massachusetts, with offices in Seoul, Milan, and Los Angeles. They have a billion-dollar product-design wall, with three or four products they designed that have made a billion dollars each.
Beate Becker: Visibility is a very important thing. Here’s one simple thing that could be done by the state: Terminal E at Logan Airport, the international terminal, is featuring an exhibition called “Science Swiss.” It consists of 25 panels of beautiful photographs and stories of scientists in Switzerland doing incredible work — everything from entomology to geology to genome projects. I walked down there and thought, Wow, this is beautiful graphic design, beautiful photography, beautifully written. All sorts of creative skills employed in the presentation of the stories of these scientists. And I said to myself, Why are the Swiss advertising in Boston’s Logan Airport? Why isn’t Massachusetts advertising Massachusetts creativity and industries in Massachusetts airports? We can make better use of existing resources to promote our Creative Economy.
Matthew Morrissey: There is another kind of visibility that also has enormous value, which comes through the film industry. There’s the promotional aspect, of course — tourists see Boston in a movie and want to visit. But just as important is the promotional aspect for the residents. New Bedford has had 15 shoots in the last 24 months — all of them small, for indies and cable. But the value for us isn’t so much in the money spent by the crews. It’s in the impossible-tomeasure pride the whole community feels when someone says you’re valuable enough to film. When you’re dealing with Gateway Cities that have been in a virtual depression for 50 years, you can’t overestimate the energy that is created. Film provides a validation — you’re cool! — that in itself promotes the Creative Economy.
Carole Walton: One of the things that we’ve done with the Create Boston program is to identify the creative industries in Boston that show significant growth potential. For the last three years, I’ve been focusing on the videogame industry, increasing awareness of Boston as a digital-media hub and laying the foundation for its continued growth. People are now viewing Boston as a videogame hub; there are currently about 76 companies located in and around Boston. We created the first game-industry steering committee, pulling in video companies from around the state, and convened focus groups to learn more about the challenges facing the industry. They told us that they needed a way to better communicate with each other and asked if we could develop a website. We applied for and received a grant from MCC to do just that.
When I listen to President Obama talk about green jobs and high-tech as a priority, I wonder why the Creative Economy isn’t being mentioned in that same context. A lot of it has to do with us not marketing ourselves properly, as an industry and as a place. Boston needs to re-brand itself as the fabulous, creative epicenter that we truly are.
Karl Baehr: If Boston’s really going to be a creative city, we’ve got to understand what’s important to these people who aren’t joiners. As a city, we need to be creative comprehensively. Not just in terms of infrastructure like roads and WiFi. We need to be creative with bureaucracy. We need to create an environment that we can market. Boston is one of the greatest cities for entrepreneurship in the country. The creative minds are here, but they leave. Why is that? Because we have yet to create this genuine creative environment that these folks are looking for. They’re looking for stimulation. They’re looking for individuality. They’re looking for openness. They’re looking for something beyond a job, something beyond even a career. It’s cultural.
Jason Schupbach: I would like to debunk the myth, though, that all creative people are outsiders. I think that’s almost completely false. If anything, they’re very interested in being part of a community of people who have similar interests. One reason why international companies are starting videogame companies here in Massachusetts is because we have the fourth largest gaming community here, and they want to be part of that community and connect with the talent that’s already here. It’s a highly networked community where everybody knows each other. That is what people are really looking for when they’re looking to be part of a creative industry.
Carole Walton: It’s important to remember that the whole gameindustry influx here was not organic. It was part of a definite strategic plan. All of a sudden Boston is seen as the premier location for videogame events, but that didn’t just happen overnight.
Elizabeth Padjen: What do people who are starting Creative Economy businesses want most? What do they ask for?
Carole Walton: They’re looking for affordable space. They’re looking for funding. They’re looking for an opportunity to be with other folks in creative industries who think the same way they do.
Jason Schupbach: The BRA has been really innovative on that front — it’s one of the few entities in the country that actually started a fund specifically to support Creative Economy businesses.
The connection between affordable, interesting space and the Creative Economy shouldn’t be overlooked. One linkage that would create enormous opportunity would be to lift the current $50-million limit on the historic-preservation tax credit. Matthew Morrissey
Carole Walton: We also have Marine Industrial Park, which is owned by the BRA, and right now we’re creating a cluster of creative businesses there. So we can give them space at an affordable price and get them all together in that environment.
Matthew Morrissey: The connection between affordable, interesting space and the Creative Economy shouldn’t be overlooked. One thing that the current state administration does very well is to understand linkages, and one linkage that would create enormous opportunity for the Creative Economy in cities outside Boston such as New Bedford would be to lift the current $50- million limit on the historic-preservation tax credit. When you look at the seven states that have uncapped historic-preservation tax credits, you see an enormous spike in investment capital. When you dig deeper, you discover that the Creative Economy is fueling a huge part of the demand for space in historic buildings — businesses and nonprofit offices, residences for the people who work in them, and services for the residents and businesses. I think we would see similarly enormous spikes here in terms of redevelopment of old mill buildings. I’m working on a 300,000-square-foot mill project right now that would house a printing and digital-media firm, a high-tech firm, and artist live/work space. About 200 jobs, many of them in the Creative Economy, would be brought in or created as a result. But holding all three of those interests together over a period of two or three tranches of funding under the current historic tax credit program might be too hard. No one’s fault — that’s the system. But if the cap were lifted now, that building would be filled.
Elizabeth Padjen: Except for Gateway Cities like New Bedford — the former mill cities of Massachusetts — this region is not known for affordable space or affordable housing. How can we be competitive relative to other regions of the country?
Beate Becker: If we’re debunking myths, I want to debunk the one that people leave because of affordability. Where do all these creatives go? They go to New York and San Francisco, which are not exactly havens of affordable real estate.
If you ask people what they need and why they move, the answer is jobs. Work is the real issue. It’s not just about educating creative people and getting them in a room together to generate a lot of ideas. If there is no market for those ideas, for those companies or products, then they can’t continue. That’s an issue that we’re especially seeing now, with creative industries taking a big hit in this economy. If people aren’t buying those services and those goods, it’s a problem. So it’s not just about growing the Creative Economy itself, it’s about growing the demand for the Creative Economy.
You do that in part by developing awareness of the added value that design can bring to an industry. Introduce designers to healthcare people and raise the issue of return on investment. What’s the value of design to healthcare? Ask Apple the value of design, or Procter & Gamble. That billion-dollar wall at Continuum? Continuum developed the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble. Getting the other industries here — healthcare, financial, bioscience, high-tech — to employ creatives is what will keep people here. We’ve got the talent. We need the work.
Elizabeth Padjen: And in fact, if you look at the websites of many local product-design firms, in addition to what you might expect — household goods, electronic devices, consumer goods — you will find an astonishing number of sophisticated medical devices, which is no accident.
Beth Siegel: That’s right. There are some fascinating crossovers, such as a company in the Berkshires that used to do computerized special effects for the movie industry that now employs 100 people doing medical simulations for the life-science industry.
Anita Walker: I also want to do a debunk. Every state worries about the brain drain. The fact of the matter is, young people move. One of the distinguishing features of the Creative Economy is that it’s highly mobile. It’s not agriculture, which is stuck in the ground; or fishing, which is stuck in the ocean; or oil wells, which are under the ground. You have to accept the mobility factor and work with it.
Nancy Fitzpatrick: I concur with Anita. I cringe every time I hear the president of Berkshire Community College say that we need to keep our young people in the Berkshires after they graduate, because I as an employer do not want to hire somebody to work at the front desk of Porches who’s never been anywhere else, who can’t get him- or herself down to New York and back. I think it’s great that new people come and young people go; they might come back and they might not. Mobility is something that we need to learn to value; we don’t necessarily want to keep people where they grew up. That’s almost un-American.
Elizabeth Padjen: In this economy, a number of people are launching businesses on their own, but what do they really know about entrepreneurship? It may even be worse for creative people, who often seem to believe that being creative and being successful in business is oxymoronic. On the other hand, the Creative Economy seems to present an opportunity to create a different business model — to work in very fluid ways that are outside traditional corporate structures. Karl, your students come to Emerson because they have a love for some kind of creative endeavor. How do they respond to the idea of entrepreneurship? How can we encourage creative people to think about the opportunities that they have in the business world?
Karl Baehr: The fundamental problem is that rule number one of business — “it’s business, not personal” — does not apply to an entrepreneur. It’s very personal. It’s not their business education that compels them to put their life savings into a business and work 15 hours a day, 12 days a week to make a go of it. What motivates them is the passion for an idea. And the moment that inherently right-brained, artistic, emotional element enters into the equation is when an entrepreneur can get off track. So you have to do the reverse: artists can already envision the house that they want to build, but you have to teach them how to use a hammer and nail, and when it’s appropriate to use a screwdriver, and what the pliers do. Those nuts and bolts — the law, management, learning how to network and partner, communication, finance — are all essential. Artist-entrepreneurs come to realize that, in order to make their vision become real, they need to learn these things, just as they need to learn how to use Pro Tools software if they’re musicians or a paintbrush if they’re illustrators. It’s the same creative passion; it’s just a different tool. And that makes it less foreign to our students. Our program is full, because our students realize that there is this thing called business out there that they need to understand.
This economy is a great time to be an entrepreneur, to be in charge of your own destiny. It’s especially true of those who are part of the Creative Economy. What better way to make your way in the world than by doing what you love and creating something, whether it is software or art or music? And understanding enough about how to navigate the waters of business allows you to do that. “Brain lateralization” is the technical term: it’s making the right brain work with the left brain, and learning how to shut off the right brain just long enough to say, Wait a minute, I’m injecting too much of my emotion into this; I need to think a little more critically. Because the passion can blind you.
Anita Walker: We can’t disconnect the Creative Economy from K-12 education. If we relegate children to rote memorization and high-stakes testing, they’re not going to be ready for the Creative Economy of the future. Increasingly we’re seeing art and music squeezed out of the curriculum in favor of high-accountability subjects. These kids will need to be both critical and creative thinkers, to be comfortable with ambiguity and with tackling a problem that doesn’t have a right answer and has never been solved before.
Jason Schupbach: Another important piece of the youth workforce-development picture is validation — helping parents understand that if their kids are interested in videogame development, for example, they can have a job in it someday. Sometimes people don’t know that these are real and, in many instances, high-paying [jobs]. Economic-development folks can create the jobs but we need people to fill them. We have some empty jobs locally in the Creative Economy even now. We can’t staff every firm that wants to come here.
Beth Siegel: It would really fill a gap if all the art, music, communication, and design schools got together and asked, “How can we help people understand the occupational opportunities?” — and then took that show on the road to high schools. Because, I can tell you, high-school counselors are not telling these kids about the career potential of these creative disciplines.
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.
Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.
I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.
Tricia Wilson Nguyen: principal of Fabric Works, Thistle Threads, and Redefined, Inc.
Tricia Wilson Nguyen combines an undergraduate interest in anthropology and archaeology, an undergraduate degree and doctorate in materials science and engineering — work on optical devices and high-tech fibers — with a lifelong passion for needlework and a knowledge of historical embroidery. She operates three companies simultaneously: Fabric Works is an engineering consulting company focusing on product design; she has designed textiles for use by the military, and this year collaborated with Polartec to launch a heated jacket. Redefined, Inc. uses current technology to manufacture “sewing cards,” Victorian perforated papers used for crossstitch designs, which became too expensive to produce at the end of the 19th century. In her capacity as the founder of Thistle Threads, she designs reproduction threads and teaches historical embroidery techniques. She has served as a textile consultant to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is currently working with Plimoth Plantation.
Deborah Weisgall: You seem to combine your interests seamlessly, as it were: your scientific background, your interest in handwork, your historical knowledge. Expertise in one field flows into the other. How did this come about?
Tricia Wilson Nguyen: My lives converged when I was asked to solve a problem of integrating situational awareness systems, which combine GPS, location of squad members, information about terrain, and physiological monitors into an electronic map, a “heads-up display” that can enhance a soldier’s ability to negotiate the surroundings, possibly using the field of electronic textiles. The natural solution was to route the cables through the fabrics they wore, instead of using plastic cables, which would be snag hazards. This is when I discovered the work going on in the not-yet-named field of electronic textiles. It was a natural for me, as I had optics, materials, systems, and high-tech textile experience. It was my knowledge of Victorian-era millinery that gave us the idea of making textile-based USB cables in a ribbon format; this led to my first manufacturing partners.
Because electronic textiles fuses two very disparate fields, everyone involved was at some disadvantage. As both an engineer and embroiderer, I could understand both technology bases. The engineers respected my ability to thread a needle, and people involved with the textile world trusted me because I could speak their language. I was stunned that when we met with the Army, my colleague would bring up my historic embroidery business as a technical qualification.
I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist.
And my technological edge has allowed me to distinguish my historical research because few art historians would approach the problems in the way an engineer would. I can sometimes clear my head and look at objects from the standpoint of “how and who” because I have both hands-on experience and the technological means to translate that experience into a new analytical technique.
In product development, you look for short-run manufacturing facilities that can make complex metal threads; I do the same thing — work with artisan manufacturers — in the historic threads area. Often the technique or calculations I do for one area can be immediately translated to the other. It’s important to understand product design and the economics of manufacturing. In the historic embroidery or restoration fields, the people who need new threads usually aren’t prepared to help the manufacturer develop a market that can justify the effort involved in making such a thread. I have founded several outlets for that kind of development, though, so I can help engineer the product and market it for hobbyists. Then I turn around and introduce some of them to the e-textiles field.
Deborah Weisgall: You proceed from the premise that art and science and commerce can coexist and reinforce each other.
Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist. I don’t see them as antithetical to each other. Let me give you an example: When I have to grapple with the problems of scaling-up and capitalizing a new thread, I start thinking about the inventory costs associated with the range of materials that go into making that thread. Weeks later, I see a piece of complex historic embroidery with as many as eight variants of complex composite threads — threads we have trouble making today — in about 10 color combinations each. Now, historians attribute this embroidery to 12-year-old girls. Knowing that these threads were made of expensive components, I start thinking about a 17th-century mercer [dealer in textiles] and his need to turn over inventory by selling to 12-year-old girls. Something just doesn’t jive. I think, maybe it wasn’t a girl, but a professional. Then I think about manufacturing on demand, and whether a small number of raw materials could be turned into such a large variety by using the spinning-wheel technologies they had available to them. Then I wonder again if we could use such techniques today to reduce the need for a range of reproduction materials by teaching hobbyists to make their own variants from simple components. And that leads me to make short runs of e-textiles threads to try out concepts for antennas in a costefficient manner. So commerce educates history, which, in turn, educates technology development. It’s synergistic, and usually it revolves around the reality of current and past economics.
Deborah Weisgall: How important to the success of your enterprises is the community in which you live — not so much the neighborhood, but the intellectual community?
Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I couldn’t be doing what I am doing if I didn’t live in such an entrepreneurial high-tech area that is also at a nexus of textile history. Many of my clients or producers are remnants of the textile industry in Massachusetts. Living close to them allows me to raise a family while keeping my engineering skills sharp. Also, the two most important collections in the US of the type of embroidery I research are within three hours of home, and England is only an airplane ride away. I often doubleup on business trips; I see a historic collection and research primary sources at libraries when I travel to teach embroidery or visit clients and manufacturing partners. When my husband and I were deciding where to live — we have the dual PhD problem — there were only five places that could support our fields. We chose Boston because we’d both gone to MIT. This fall, I’m guest lecturing at the Media Lab there — talking about 17th-century embroidery to an engineering group. I couldn’t do that type of cross-disciplinary work in most cities. Deborah Weisgall: You have taken what has been considered “women’s work” — though it was not in Tudor England — and added to it a technological dimension. How has that influenced your career? Tricia Wilson Nguyen: Certainly having a PhD from a hardcore engineering discipline has given me a level of credibility when discussing textiles and embroidery — something that has been debased and relegated to “women’s work” in the last 200 years. I try never to apologize for my feminine side. As a young woman, I made it in some of the toughest male-dominated situations: MIT, a PhD program, and leading a grueling military development program. I have my war wounds, and know how to turn someone who makes a snarky comment into an enthusiastic listener by adding just the right amount of serious tech talk. And often the men take my expertise in handwork more seriously than the women.
Cities, regions, even entire nations, are pursuing the Creative Economy. What can we learn from Singapore, Glasgow, and Ogulin?
Successful economies have always been creative. Why is this 21st-century Creative Economy any different? Global exchanges and the clashing and blending of cultures have been documented and analyzed for at least 10,000 years. Technological innovations affecting all of society resulting from aesthetic curiosity (or “art for art’s sake”) can be traced back at least as long. Likewise, cultural tourism — people traveling to learn and explore, as well as to trade and exchange ideas — isn’t new either. Nor was Richard Florida, the economist who popularized the idea of the “creative class,” the first to notice that economic prosperity and concentrations of creative people go together.
So what makes this era so special?
In a word, speed. We communicate across the globe at the speed of light. We, and our goods, move across thousands of miles overnight. Global cultures blend daily in the workplace, on the streets, and at the farmers market. Artists and inventors blog, create, and reinterpret in virtual and physical space 24/7. Innovation — the fuel for entrepreneurs — and the drive to find and experience the new have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Now, they are in our faces, at our fingertips, and changing before our eyes like never before.
“New ideas must use old buildings,” wrote Jane Jacobs. However, the Creative Economy requires more than old buildings, artists, bohemian neighborhoods, and tourists. Cities, urban regions, and small towns looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight. They need to examine their: clarity and authenticity of place (“brand identity”); civic and corporate cultures and institutions; ability to adapt to constant change; capacity to welcome and integrate new and different people and ideas; and ability to cross boundaries and find synergies between industries and disciplines.
Contrary to many notions and fears around globalization, success is not found in homogenization. Cities and regions that are able to distinguish their brand and build on unique skills, products, services, natural resources, and other assets are more likely to succeed. Creative branding or identity development is increasingly critical for places as much as it has become for products. More than a PR campaign, good branding requires finding widely shared authenticity rooted in the history, people, and evolving story of place.
The Croatian community of Ogulin with its castles, magical landscapes, and local literary figures reasserted its brand based in history and authenticity. Renowned for the fairy tales that were written there, the community has become a cultural tourism destination and has reignited its intellectual and creative energies, thus reinvigorating its self-esteem and its fortunes. In contrast, Hamilton, New Zealand, ignoring its indigenous heritage and agricultural roots, is trying to re-brand itself with the slogan “From Cowtown to Wowtown.” A likely flash in the pan.
Healthy civic and corporate cultures make an enormous difference. Chicago is a city that works — even if its political capital is tightly held. A diverse economy and inclusive civic institutions have kept it growing and stable. Similarly, visionary and effective leadership is credited with reviving the UK’s Newcastle Gateshead area, inspiring citizens, attracting investment, and assembling successful Creative Economy elements. On the flip side, rife with corruption and the inability of their leaders to fully motivate and engage people, are the cities of New Orleans; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Camden, New Jersey — which only look good next to Cartagena, Baghdad, or Nairobi.
Over the past couple of decades, the Scottish city of Glasgow has transformed itself with new industries and trade partners for at least the fourth time in its history. Meanwhile, Detroit and Flint, Michigan struggle massively to adapt to changing conditions. These US cities were literally built around an industry cluster, markets, technologies, and labor strategies whose relevance has waned.
While still a young metropolitan region, Silicon Valley and its urban center, San José, demonstrate enormous capacity to integrate new ideas and people through a cluster of industries that have morphed a couple of times in as many decades. The business and social construct of the “wiki” emerged there not only as a functional tool to incorporate the best ideas quickly from across the globe, but also as a way of re-thinking how business is organized. Welcoming people and cultures from around the world, San José also exhibits one of the highest rates of minority business ownership among major American cities and has perhaps the most diverse mix of small and medium-sized nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Creative Economy proponents lament the resistance to newcomers among the native-born and see evidence that xenophobic attitudes have clogged the city’s economic development pipeline.
Creating synergy across disciplines and sectors can be seen in some of the most productive small and large places. Legendary college president and Tennessee Valley Authority architect Arthur Morgan wrote about his small Ohio college town of Yellow Springs in 1953. In addition to one of the most concentrated and active small arts communities in the US, this village of 3,500 spawned businesses producing innovations in aluminum casting, seed hybridization, industrial design, and high-precision thermostats as well as water-monitoring devices, industrial surface-plates, high-stress rubber bearings, and the first-known EMT training program. The remarkable list goes on. Morgan concluded these industries sprouted from a quality of life that included interdisciplinary education in which both art and science were central, inclusive racial and labor relations, and a highly engaged civic community. Morgan was perhaps the Industrial Age’s Richard Florida. By contrast, and on a wildly different scale, Charlotte’s massive banking industry leaves that city in a precarious position in what is essentially a one-industry town.
Cities and regions looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight.
A report published in February 2009 by the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts predicted that the creative sector in that country will grow at an average annual rate of 4 percent during the next five years — more than twice the rate of the economy as a whole. It will employ more people than the financial sector by 2013, or as much as 7 percent of the workforce. (Similar data have not been studied for the US.)
Too many US communities hoping to tap this growing sector have fallen for easy solutions. City after city has rushed into a simplified version of Richard Florida’s three Ts, trying to attract Talent and Technology and showing little understanding of Tolerance. But clusters of “creative class” workers and the industries they populate are not enough.
This temptation to oversimplify, and thus misunderstand, the Creative Economy is common. In many US cities, institutional arts interests have dressed up the Creative Economy as a way to garner more money for the arts. A healthy creative community is a necessary ingredient for a healthy economy — as are healthy civic and corporate cultures. However, big symphonies, operas, ballets, and museums full of Renaissance paintings do not necessarily encourage creative behaviors among residents who come from all parts of the world, nor do they excite most young high-tech workers.
Similarly, cultural tourism alone is unlikely to transform an economy — apart from Orlando, Florida, a place dependent on a couple of California-based corporations. While their theme parks are unlikely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future, if and when they do, the region will need more than Ghostbusters.
Looking for quick fixes, some cities have tried to re-package creative industries, promoting “creative clusters.” Others have fashioned or built bohemian enclaves or arts districts to attract young hipsters. Clusters may fuel a raging engine for the short term, but cities that have focused on one product have not fared well over time. Their precipitous declines have been as dramatic as their rising fortunes. Clusters can be significant parts of an economic mix if they operate in a creative and permeable environment and interact vigorously with other industries and sectors.
Still other cities have put all three together — a robust arts community, a “cool city” image, and a cluster of creativity-based businesses. In some places, this has made a difference. A community with healthy self-esteem, where people get along and work together to accomplish civic ends — a community that can pull off this three-part strategy — already has in place most of the needed ingredients and is on the right path.
But an even more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms that drive creative economies requires an even broader, more holistic view. Two countries, with very different histories and cultures, have recently embarked on initiatives that merit attention. Seeing the need to maintain a balance between strategies and assets, both Sweden and Singapore have articulated plans for nurturing their creative industries. In a nation not well-known for tolerance, Singapore’s National Arts Council prescribes the “5-C” plan to heighten the creativity of this already prosperous nation. Culture, Competency, Connectivity, Capital, and Conditions provide the framework it hopes will ensure a perpetual place atop the economic food chain. A program laid out by Sweden’s Knowledge Foundation has many parallels: Education and training, Research, Industry, Business collaboration, and Arts/Culture. This “ERIBA Model” is based on a circular approach of stimulating creativity and the arts, providing the forums, cross-sector research, and collaborative systems that allow business and industry to gain from innovations and innovative behaviors. Both Singapore and Sweden are thinking in terms of larger systems that embrace all their assets.
This is the challenge that faces Massachusetts today as it considers its Creative Economy. While Boston has reinvented its economy several times by drawing upon its key assets of geographic location and intellectual capital, it has also lost out on opportunities because of its tightly held culture, as AnnaLee Saxenian demonstrated in her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. Boston’s 19th-century business models, rigid proprietary practices, and paternalistic corporate culture, she argued, did not provide fertile ground for invention, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial enterprises. Meanwhile, a very different and open environment took off in Silicon Valley.
But the Boston region, indeed the entire state, is today a very different place from what it was in 1994. The economic growth of the last 15 years has coincided with the expansion of entire industries — biotechnology, videogames, new media — that did not exist a few decades ago, that have brought with them fresh faces and fresh business practices. The corporations that once ruled Boston are largely gone — sold or relocated. Demographics have changed, with a larger immigrant population. Greater Boston is not Silicon Valley, but it is not what it once was, either. It is much better poised to do the necessary work — to examine and promote its identity, functional capacity, adaptability, inclusiveness, and synergies — and to invent the necessary means. After all, what’s a Creative Economy without creativity?