What voice do the arts have in today's economy? For much of our recent history, the arts have been considered a ‘nice to have’, a quality of life amenity that certainly helps make a difference in the community, but expendable when there are tough budget or resource choices. We are painfully aware of being excluded as serious priority from the public funding and the arts education conversations. But, there is a new table that we can join with a strong and purposeful voice – and that is the ‘economic development’ table.
I’m not just talking about economic impact (which many economic development specialists dismiss), or community/quality of life, but measured, quantifiable economic development in the same manner as biotech, healthcare, or construction industries. While many in the arts community believe that anything connecting us with the same tools to business somehow ‘taints’ our value or impact or role, the truth is – if you are not at the economic development table these days, you are just not part of the conversation – period – like it or not. But the reality today is that we can demonstrate the value of being seated at that table, perhaps for the very first time.
Measuring our ‘creative economy/industries’ is a relatively new endeavor in our country (since about 1999) but it has been around much longer in Europe and Australasia. Even the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has put out two reports on the value and impact of our ‘creative economy’, with the latest being Creative Economy Report 2010: A Feasible Development Option. Creative economy connects the nonprofit arts, for profit creative businesses (such as advertising, web digital design, printing, media, etc) and independent creatives (musicians, graphic artists) under one umbrella - because they all produce products or services which originate with aesthetic, creative or cultural content. Once the net is cast around these industries, we can measure them the same way any other industry sector is measured. Generally, this is done with NAICS (industry codes) and SOC (occupation codes) to count and determine wage value of industry sector jobs. And measuring the growth of jobs in a sector is a critical component of community development policy. For an example of how this is compiled and analyzed, check out Creative Alliance Milwaukee’s recent creative industries profile.
While you might not like being in the same sandbox as manufacturing, biotech, healthcare, etc, the ability to speak about the arts as a measurable industry cluster that is making a serious economic contribution to the success of our communities gives you an important voice at the table. Now, here’s the real opportunity – once you are seated at the table, you can help shape the conversation. It’s up to you to speak to the arts’ intrinsic value, its contribution to education, why quality of life and creative placemaking are crticial to the health of your community.
The relatively new profiling of our ‘creative industries’ is one of the best opportunities we have right now for a voice at the table. The NEA’s investment in developing and measuring ‘creative placemaking’ has equal potential at the community table. How we speak at the table will determine our future. So, what will you say when you have the opportunity to speak?