Richard Florida in the Outback

Richard Florida has done a lot for the American Outback, at least the economist and urban theorist has for this small Southern city, whose politicians, business leaders and civic boosters, previously no more than luke-warm enthusiasts of the arts, are now calling Savannah, in full-throated unison, the capital of the "Creative Coast."

The author of "The Rise of the Creative Class" made, and continues to make, the case that the more arts-oriented a city is, the more likely it is to attract educated, inventive and motivated young people who have little concept of America's former economic paradigm -- based on industry, manufacturing, the making of stuff -- and who are now actively engaged in the paradigm of the future -- base on knowledge, innovation, the thinking up of stuff that others make.

Florida didn't stop with the arts. On a recently appearance on CNN, he reported finding that "gay-friendly" cities are like arts-oriented cities -- their culture of tolerance tends to attract the best and brightest minds -- and the companies that need those minds -- companies that are "knowledge-based" like telecommunications, software, graphic design, advertising and so on -- are moving to those same cities.

As his research into the arts has taken root, we have seen a dervish of economic impact studies in cities like Savannah that aim to demonstrate the feasibility of the arts to people -- i.e., politicians, business leaders and civic boosters -- who have in the past appeared virtually allergic to attempts to quantify the feasibility of the arts, much less the economic benefits to the community.

The motherlode of economic impact studies came last month when the advocacy group American for the Arts released its massive survey finding that Savannah saw more than $46.6 million in cultural spending in 2005: Arts groups here spent $21.8 million; audiences here spent more than $24.7 million.

It was the first time Savannah joined the study and surely not the last. Savannah wants to be a part of America's new economic paradigm. That's why the Savannah College of Art and Design, the largest, officials here say, of its kind, was given a collection of African-American art worth as much as $10 million.

That's why the Telfair Museum of Art built a new $25 million annex to put itself as the center of all this cultural development. That's why the nonprofit Creative Coast Initiative strives, under the auspices of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, to convince "brain-based businesses" to take up residence here.

Typical of cities in the American Outback, Savannah doesn't have enough mass appreciation and understanding of the arts to fuel a resurgence of the arts. But combined with economic impact studies that demonstrate a clear cash incentive, the city's power brokers are starting to get in formation. The arts, thanks to Richard Florida's Merlin-like ideology, seem to be nearing a turning point.

There are numerous good things to say about this, not the least of which is the raising of artistic standards, increased cultural options and a build-up of the arts community. But the issue I feel needs exploring here is not that but this: Amid all the talk about the arts being good for business and therefore good for the city, I worry that we're making promises for the arts that they ultimately cannot, and perhaps should not, keep.

An obvious problem with economic impact studies is that they suggest a direct correlation between cash input and output that can't be conclusively measured. The "impact" of spending by arts groups on the local economy appears soft, to say the least, because of lot of those expenditures go to touring groups, who, after the performance, leave town the next day.

A more abstract issue is that economic impact studies attempt to quantify something that's inherently unquantifiable: like trying to measure the cash-value of the moral benefits of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, shoe-horning the arts into a quantifiable shoe-size creates an intellectual climate in which what's permissible is what's demonstrably beneficial, which places prohibitive restrictions on what artists can do, or even dare to think about doing.

But I wonder if this is less worrisome than something else, something that we didn't have to face 100 years ago: too much focus on the production of the arts and not enough on the experience of the arts.

In 2005, researchers for the Rand Corporation, in a report called "The Gifts of the Muse," found that, in addition to economic impact studies suffering from "noteworthy weakness" and "holes in the evidence," such surveys distract from what really needs to be done: namely, creating new and future audiences for the arts.

Rand researchers suggested creating environments in which people can experience the intrinsic value, not the instrumental value, of the arts on a regular basis. This means less supply-side thinking -- i.e., putting on shows and exhibits -- and more demand-side thinking. There should be more attention paid to arts education, in other words. Once demand is established and growing, supply can then naturally follow.

Savannah already has an abundance of artists and art-making. The most common complaint I hear from artists is the lack of audience involvement. The situation reminds me of a Times piece I read recently by Anne Midgette that explored the troubled nomenclature of chamber music. As one source noted, there's an abundance of chamber music and chamber musicians, but "at the moment supply outstrips demand."

"After many years of programs and grants to increase supply," John Steinmetz, a bassoonist and composer active in the chamber music field, told Midgette, "arts organizations are only now starting to think creatively about how to increase demand."

If Savannah buys wholeheartedly into the idea of beefing up arts organizations to attract the best and brightest minds, who in turn will attract the "brain-based businesses," who in turn will transform the city into an exemplar of America's future economic paradigm, there's still one thorny issue: that demand for art is being separated from the arts organizations that produce it.

Case in point is classical music. While orchestra boosters are shelling out millions to build new concert halls, audiences continue to shrink and age. Meanwhile, demand for recordings of classical music seems to be experiencing a kind of renaissance: iTunes, which controls more than 70 percent of the music-download market, saw classical music account for about 12 percent of sales last year.

Critic Pierre Ruhe rightly points out the obvious in a book review of Joe Horowitz's massive and utterly cynical tome, "Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall" for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: that most people experience classical music in the form of recorded media.

This might be a bad thing for orchestras, like the bankrupted Savannah Symphony Orchestra, but it's a good thing for the classical music.

"Young composers are likely to find smashed musical boundaries exhilarating," Ruhe wrote in 2005. "The current situation [described in Horowitz's book] is that stodgy symphony orchestras, outposts of a once-glorious empire, have piloted themselves toward the margin. For some of these institutions, it might lead to an early extinction."

The weak appeal of arts organizations is even starker for dance. Even as institutions like the Oakland Ballet and Ohio Ballet are disappearing, new trends, ideas and sensibilities are taking shape in the digital realm. As writer Jody Rosen observes for Slate, the rise of YouTube may have spurred a new era of dance and dance crazes, as evidenced by the rise in popularity of an obscure dance video called "Aunt Jackie," which has since being posted become its own dance move.

"Whatever repercussions the rise of online video has for music and the music business, it's doing wonders for dancers," Rosen wrote recently. "One can't help but suspect that we are entering a new dance craze golden age, in which the emphasis will be laid firmly on the dancing in dance music."

Rosen's focus is mainly on street dance and hip-hop, but the full pantheon of dance styles can be seen on YouTube and others like it. In fact, readers of my blog for the Savannah Morning News in recent weeks have seen more dance styles in digital format than they may ever see in the analog world.

One can guess with some certainty that among the downloaders driving 12 percent of classica music sales on iTunes and among the throngs fueling the popularity of dance -- from ballet to popping-and-locking -- on YouTube are the very same members of Richard Florida's Creative Class that cities like Savannah are trying to attract.

And if they are -- and why wouldn't they be? -- then what is meaning of a economic impact study of arts organizations when those same arts organizations must compete for the attention of the coveted Creative Class with the art that they themselves produce?

What then for cities in the Outback?

Whatever the answer, I don't think it can deduced from an economic impact study. Something more is needed. What that is, I don't know. What I do know, or at least I suspect with good reason, is that the arts, and the cultivation of creativity, is going to become an increasingly important issue in cities like Savannah in the decades ahead

As Dana Gioia, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a commencement speech at Stanford University last month: "If the United States is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, it is not going to succeed through cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully, this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation."

July 2, 2007 7:44 PM | | Comments (3)

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Another comment on economic impact studies of the arts: They tend to focus on major cities that offer a variety of entertainment options: I don't know Savannah, but I will guess that it, as other municipalities, have a number of attractions that would appeal to visitors, such as movie houses, book shops, clothing stores, theaters (for-profit and nonprofit), cafes, restaurants, music halls (again, nonprofit and for-profit). I cannot imagine the type of tourist who would travel to, say, New York City just to see a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then go directly home. More likely, people come to Manhattan for the whole package. Can one truly say, then, that a show at the Met had this or that economic impact on the city, when it may have been that Bloomingdale's was a principal target of the visitor? Perhaps, the economic impact of certain retail outlets on the arts should be assessed. The economic impact studies exist for a narrow reason, which is to bolster the argument that government should provide funding (or more funding) to the nonprofit arts. Broadway, on the other hand, is for-profit. What may be playing there could be as important to the health of nonprofit institutions such as museums as anything the city government could do. There hasn't been any economic impact studies on communities where there is only one cultural institution, such as the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania -- I doubt that museum has added anything to the economic life of the small town of Merion. Because of all these reasons, I find most economic impact studies of the arts to be inherently fraudulent, requiring another -- better -- reason for public support of the arts.

If we could just put a price tag on the lot of it then we could not only recognize what it is, we could become cognizant of what it's worth as juxtaposed against other price tags and worth. When we become aware of what it's worth, then and only then can we know ourselves. Probably. I would suggest that the word regional will remain perjorative until Art, and arts organizations, and artists can begin to understand that this is the problem and not the solution.

John:
Someone should do a comparitive economic impact study comparing Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point in North Carolina. Winston-Salem has dedicate a lot of resources to the arts unlike the other two for 50 years.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on July 2, 2007 7:44 PM.

The place that artists fly over was the previous entry in this blog.

Visual art coverage in the Outback is the next entry in this blog.

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