How should we rank the cultural/creative scenes of cities?

so many creatives!Yesterday I came across a ranking of the ‘top 20 US cities for culture‘, from the real estate blog (no, not one I usually follow, h/t Ted Gioia). The internet loves to produce listicles, and diminishing returns have long set in when it comes to ranking cities. But this one raises an important issue for researchers of the creative economy.

It ranks cities according to cultural venues (museums, libraries, theatres) per capita. Their reasoning:

And while New York City has an impressive number (2,693!) of such properties — considerably more than runner-up Houston, TX with 1,890 cultural venues — that doesn’t necessarily propel it to our top spot. In fact, if we were to solely take into account the number of venues, Memphis, TN would be the least equipped major city in the U.S. for cultural and recreational activities, with merely 115 venues.

But a bigger population means more people are sharing the venues…

But let’s think about that. In the city where you live, how much does the number of venues per capita matter to you, rather than, say, the number of venues that are easily accessed from your home? If you wanted to travel to take in some culture, would you prefer New York City, or Jacksonville, Florida, the latter of which has, according to this list, more venues per capita? Of course New York has more to offer. And those offerings are not diminished by the fact that they are shared by a very large metro population.

Now, a study from a real estate blog might seem like pretty small game. But let’s think about something more influential.

In Richard Florida’s game-changing book The Rise of the Creative Class, his appendices rank cities according to the number of ‘creative class’ workers, or even the ‘super-creative core’, as a percentage of all workers. Is this how we ought to measure the creative potential of cities? For large regions, that puts Hartford, CT, and Kansas City, MO ahead of New York City (pp. 246-7). I believe the numbers – that’s not the problem. It’s that looking to per capita, or per worker, doesn’t capture the creative potential of cities. New York has a lot of non-creative-class workers, which pulls its index down. But why should that matter?

As with the propertyshark rankings of cultural venues, so with creative workers I would guess that the sheer number per square mile might matter a lot more in terms of the things that matter, namely the chance for creatives to meet and potentially learn from or collaborate with one another.

Increasingly, there is a lot of data out there, and a real interest in cities and their creative and economic possibilities. But that means we need to think carefully about the measures that best capture what it is we want to analyze. Total population data is really easy to find, but it is not clear it is really what we always want.

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  1. says

    One approach might be to collect sets of data that corroborate each other, or work together to create a more complete picture. For example:

    +The USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita – behind every European country except impoverished Portugal.
    +We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. (Chicago barely makes the list in the 97th position.)
    + The geographic distance between our genuinely function houses are often enormous – like from Los Angles to Santa Fe to Houston.
    + The budgets for our houses are often very small. Major houses in Euorpe average around $135 million per year. The Met’s is $327 million. The Houston Grand Opera’s budget is only $20 million even though Houston is the 4th largest city in the USA and has a GDP equal to the entire country of Austria. The San Diego Opera essentially collapsed even though its budget was only $15 million.
    + The price of our opera tickets average 3 or 4 times higher than in Europe.

    A picture evolves that cannot be discounted because it is based only on one set of data.

    For additional interest, we might add to this that Indiana University (where you teach) has a fabulous opera school – probably the best in the world. It churns out highly trained singers into an economy that provides them poorer job prospects than almost any other developed country in the world.

    Maybe a limited set of stats could be “damned lies” as they say, but a wide set of corroborating data sets becomes less disputable.

  2. says

    I think the “listicles” about cities, as you aptly named, are meant to stimulate the imagination. They give people a way of imagining themselves and their lives in another place, which reflects on our mobility as well as probably our dissatisfactions. The lust for the place we can afford and thrive in. But when they step into ranking cultural facets, I think one dimension that would be so much more useful than venue count is cultural participation. While attendance at SOBs (symphony, orchestra and ballet) might be down, paricipation is up, thanks to digital technology and updated definitions about what constitutes cultural particpation. The NEA estimates that 75% of Americans participate. The thing to ask from our cities is where can and do we participate and how many opportunities are there for us to be creative and contribute rather than just be passive consumers of culture.

  3. says

    Why not judge on the basis of quantitative artistic productivity (number of locally-grown performances, exhibitions, publications) and/or percentage of residents who participate in the arts (as artists, audiences, patrons, venues’ staffs, visitors, etc.)

  4. says

    Thanks all for your comments.

    I agree that cultural participation is key. For example, number of people who use the library is more interesting than the number of libraries alone, since the fact is we can access things to read virtually anywhere, but being surrounded by other people who like to read is something that some cities offer, and others do not. I’ve lived in both kinds of places, and it mattered a great deal. Music venues are good; people who like to play, and listen to, live music even better.

    As to opera: I like opera. I have many cd’s and I attend the productions at my university, which, as William Osborne attests, is truly an amazing school. But NEA data have it from their 2012 survey of participation in the arts that 2% of Americans attended an opera in the year of that survey. It is an art form that is a minority taste. People can listen to it for free on NPR, can access low-price excellent-quality cd’s, but the vast majority simply don’t. And it should not be used as the primary metric for the quality of arts funding or arts participation in the US. It is one form in the great mosaic of art and music. It has a larger audience, and much more public funding, in Europe. But while there might be (though not necessarily) arguments to be made that Europeans simply do arts funding better, opera is not the key metric.

    • says

      We should avoid the fallacy of saying Americans don’t attend opera when in reality there are almost no houses to attend. We rank 39th in the world for opera performances per capita. Most Americans would have to travel hundreds of miles to find a genuinely functional opera house. So yeah, they don’t attend opera.

      And with so few houses, CD sales are affected as well. Opera is one of the most corporeal and visceral of art forms. It is largely dependent on the live experience to develop appreciation. It’s interesting that the Met’s HD broadcasts have shown remarkable success. Accessible and affordable live performances would likely be even more popular.

      We should also ask if there any such thing as a generalized key metric in measuring arts funding. Any genre would have its specific audience and numerous other contexts. Opera is a useful metric because it is very expensive. It illustrates how public funding systems can fund expensive forms better than private systems. And interestingly, the numbers trickle down more or less parallel in less expensive forms like orchestras, music festivals, and new music ensembles. We thus need to see some hard numbers to show that opera stands apart from other genres.

      And since Mr. Mandel is here, we might note that during the 60s through the 90s even jazz was largely sustained in Europe while it was neglected in the States. It is interesting how so many of the videos we have of American jazz greats during those years come from Europe while there is a huge gap in the USA. To this day, outside of military bands, the only full time big bands in the world are in Europe where they are maintained by state radios. Or shall we say that jazz is an unsuitable metric for American culture?

  5. Saul Davis says

    Quality has to count more than anything else! Quantity, shmantity. Creative class employment? How do you measure the unemployment? The most realistic quantification must be the number of unemployed creative people who do not leave, who stick it out, because they believe in the city. When you reduce art to numbers, you kill it.

  6. says

    Please forgive my delay in responding to William Osborne’s comments. I was wrapped up in the 36th annual Chicago Jazz Festival, free for five days mostly in downtown Millenium Park (in a Frank Gehry-designed outdoor concert venue). Scores of internationally known and also locally famous musicians performed for I’d guess something like 100,000 residents of all demographics, generating lots of ancillary income for local business and some touring $$, too.

    To me, that’s the kind of cultural experience (and there were at least a dozen similar events throughout the US over the holiday weekend, more last weekend and more next) that should be taken into account when anyone for fun or funding looks at “top cultural cities.” A quantitative approach seems to me to be required, because the quality of cultural experiences is not possible to objectively judge. But the specific numbers of cultural events, opportunities, resources and venues — not as applies to a percentage of population or potential audience, not as considers only cultural workers (and doesn’t count non-workers, or engaged audiences, children, retirees, tourists) gives us a sense of how much the arts matter in a given locale. Yes, New York comes out in front in the USA. I would think such figures would be applied if we were looking for the “top sports cities” or “top walking cities” or any other such thing.

    To compare funding across the arts imho is extremely misleading. Let me say that I like opera, but I didn’t grow up immersed in it, and I don’t think it’s principally an American art form (which is likely why participation is so much higher in Europe, where it IS a native growth). Opera is, as noted, costly to produce and typically requires special venues — it is meant to be experienced live (at least with the visuals available, rather than as audio-only music) and enjoys a certain privilege by virtue of its historical reputation (especially in the U.S.,) with high art, government-supported institutions and society patrons. By contrast, jazz doesn’t cost much to perform or record, was in its inception scorned as low-down entertainment of little value, and in the commercial pop era (say, from the rise of Elvis Presley and the long-play record, so we’re talking more than half a century) has been eclipsed by the onslaught of marketing and promotion and audience response to more intrinsically vocal, fixed-form recorded music.

    Nonetheless, the value of jazz (for example as one art form — we might also consider community theater or modern dance) stems directly from how it suffuses contemporary daily life, including the continuum of experience from pure expressivity to commercial functionality. We’re in a top cultural city when we have the ability to engage with opera, jazz, other forms of chamber music (including rock, rap, polka, gospel) visual exhibitions ranging from museum installations to a highly energized mural or even graffiti scene, street arts, public sculpture, ballet, ballroom, social or folk dance, etc., film production and screenings, etc. And we really know we’re in such a city when we’re with crowds of others who are have the same experiences, and taking them seriously — talking about them, joining together to support them, hearing about, reading about or viewing reports about them in the media (including in social media).

    There can be important hubs of artistic activity and cultural experience in locales of low-density population, but the annual jazz and folk festivals don’t by themselves make Newport a “top city for culture,” or a great opera school like Indiana U’s in Bloomington the equivalent of NYC, with the Met, City Opera (should it survive), Juilliard, Mannes, etc. Giving a lot of money to opera because opera needs it to survive does not make opera “better” than jazz, in which even the greatest artists have learned to scramble for a living. As an American, I’m rather ambivalent about the value of grants and patronage as a way of supporting artistic endeavor, although yes, we have a national culture and ought to have the good sense to invest in it. The top cities for culture in the US are where a lot of very diverse art is being made by a lot of highly diverse artists a lot of the time for a lot of people to engage with (and, one hopes, enjoy). It’s not a question of “a top city for its size” or “a top city in money spent on X.” IMHO.

    • says

      A couple responses:

      “As an American, I’m rather ambivalent about the value of grants and patronage as a way of supporting artistic endeavor…”

      I’ve noticed that jazz musicians are also often ambivalent about grants and patronage. It seems related to the historic ethos that jazz is a commercial form of music that can support itself, even if that largely ceased to be the case long ago.

      “It’s not a question of ‘a top city for its size’ or ‘a top city in money spent on X.’”

      There is, however, a fairly close correlation between artistic activity and the money spent on it. I think of Chicago with its one symphony orchestra and one opera house with only a six month season, compared to Berlin with 3 year-round opera houses and about 7 full time symphony orchestras. Or Paris, Munich, London, and Vienna with 2 houses and 5 full time orchestras. Or I think of all those full time big bands in Europe owned and operated by state radios.

      With their strongly capitalist ethos, Americans like to say you get what you pay for, until it comes to the arts where they get less because they spend less. Then the rationalizations begin about how money doesn’t matter. Or we stress a big yearly event without noting the poverty for the rest of the year. Or that a big yearly event in a big city is enough and that we needn’t concern ourselves with the cultural poverty of smaller cities.

      Another common rationalization is that only quality counts, not quantity, even if it means the arts are rarefied and reserved mostly for the wealthy while the larger demographic is neglected.

      • says

        I also notice we use a selective logic. We say opera is a European form so it is better supported in Europe, but ignore that an American form like big bands are also better supported in Europe. Unfortunately, George Wein (founder of the Newport and JVC Jazz Festivals) wasn’t exaggerating as much as we might hope when he said: “If it weren’t for Europe, there would be no jazz!” It seems we leave it to Europeans to support their art and ours.

        And this is not to mention that opera was once essentially a popular art form in America just as in Europe. Europe worked to sustain it but America didn’t.

        • says

          Are musical comedies opera? Seems like an American form which has fallen on hard times. Ask Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and all those high school big bands celebrated by the Jazz Education Network as well as in contention at jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition if they depend upon Europe. Ask George Wein why he seldom books European radio jazz orchestras.

      • says

        Yeah William — you raise some cogent points re my attitudes towards funding, but I don’t think my attitudes are wrong or unearned.

        Having dealt with the current funding organizations, I think there’s a lot of wasted effort and currently way too little to show for the $$ being spent. The amount of money going to grants administration and review is out of proportion to the amount going to artists in the fields I’m most familiar with. The amount of hassle artists must endure in order to get grants from the few foundations that support is inordinate. When I looked at NEA funding for jazz musicians on a per-project basis in the ’80s, I was very impressed with the roster of musicians who received funding, and how far the $ were spread. Of course the NEA no longer gives grants to artists directly, but instead funds institutions. That’s a sad loss of resources, and the states arts councils are in no better circumstances. Those programs should be refunded by federal and state legislators and their priorities re-considered in light of current cultural needs.

        When I’m asked to evaluate artists for the very few big grants from private funders now, I’m disturbed at the several factors of bias evident in the funders’ choices, and how giving what seems like enormous funding to a small group creates an elite coterie rather than seeding the field. The funding administrators listen way too much to high priced arts consultants about how to deal with those artists. In my experience.

        Then too there’s the idea that the marketplace keeps the music honest. I think that’s crucial in an art form that wants to have a genuine relationship to the citizenry in a capitalist democracy. I have European friends who think otherwise, but I don’t hear the popular elements in the music coming from that support which I favor and savor.

        Regarding standing jazz big bands — there are several in the states, funded through personal endeavor. I’m thinking of the Vanguard Monday Night Band, the Mingus Big Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Orbert Davis’s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. And there are jazz support groups — membership supported, but recipients sometimes of sponsorship/patronage/grants — in many cities across the U.S. There is even some support (small, occasional) for touring groups, from the NEA among other sources. Not much of it, though. To my knowledge there has seldom been adequate support from non-profit sources to fund touring ensembles of any size, much less big bands, in the U.S. However, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra spends a lot of time on the road (I expect to hear them in St. Louis in Oct.).

        Yes, we are lucky that the Europeans videographed or filmed American jazz musicians in the ’80s and ’90s, when the US-based music industry and television wasn’t interested (as it still isn’t). And support in Europe for jazz has stimulated thriving local scenes in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Italy, the Netherlands, some parts of the UK. But that appears to have done little to grow jazz audiences and the radio big bands serve visiting composers more than they produce brilliant new artists of their own (there are a couple of exceptions, but only a couple).

        The fact is that in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, DC, Seattle, Portland, Durham NC, Philly, Atlanta, LA, the Bay Area, St. Louis, Columbus OH, Bloomington IN, Boulder, Gainesville, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Kansas City, Albany and the Hudson River Valley, Phoenix and Tucson, Albuquerque, Austin, Cleveland and many other cities there is jazz activity year-long. It’s not that $ doesn’t count — it would be great if there was more in the system. And I particularly want more money for writers about the arts — if we want to talk about an underfunded segment of the cultural ecology, let’s start there. But no, I don’t believe in jazz you get what you pay for. The biggest paychecks have always gone most easily to the most compromised, least interesting artists. Maybe that’s different in other art forms, but in jazz I don’t see how that’s likely to change. If it matters that jazz musicians don’t live large as the big league rappers, rockers or reality show stars.

        I’m of the opinion that the arts in America shoudl be decentralized, that people everywhere should be able to participate and ought to be encouraged to engage, enjoy, understand and appreciate the arts, and that there’s enough $ to more than go around, if there’s a genuine will to pay for who we are and what we want. I don’t think anyone in the arts is interested in impeding the flow of $ to any of the arts. We just want the $ to do the most good for the most people, and not simply support a coterie skilled in fundraising but less so in reaching the populace with their music/visual arts/literary work/whatever.

      • says

        Very true. The US public funding system is poorly run. In most of Europe, the majority of funding is paid for and administered at the state and municipal levels so there isn’t the loss caused by bouncing through levels of government. In Germany, only 12% of funding is Federal. 50% is municipal and 38% from the state. This local funding also allows for a much more direct connection between artists, funders, and publics. And when funding is decentralized, it helps avoid giving almost all the money to the elite coteries you mention.

        The US system is also inefficient since about a third to a half of the administrative staff in most performing arts organizations is used solely for fund-raising.

        I’m not too sure about the marketplace keeping art honest. Are Brittany Spears and Justin Timberlake honest? I think Chet and Miles were honest as artists, but I wouldn’t bet on them making a lot of money these days. Is Wynton honest? Or is he maybe a little to buttoned down? Chris Botti makes a lot of money, but is he honest? The marketplace might not be the best lie detector.

        At the same time, I think there’s too much phony European art that would do well to face some market principles. Even with public funding, artists should answer to their publics and care about their needs and interests. Part of the greatness of jazz is that it has always answered to the people. So how do you publically fund it and not destroy that honesty?

        It’s true about the limitations of the European big bands. At least to my ears, try as they may, they never quite “swing” like American bands do — to use the term in a very broad manner. George Wein would be nuts to book European radio big bands, which is an argument for better supporting the Americans who do it more authentically. I’m not well informed about which US big bands tour in Europe, but I know that Diva goes there quite a bit and has a cult following. Sending US big bands to Europe would be great cultural diplomacy – another area Americans neglect but that Europeans use extensively.

        Thanks for the thought provoking ideas. They help examine my views and refine my advocacy.

        • says

          “Part of the greatness of jazz is that it has always answered to the people. So how do you publically fund it and not destroy that honesty?” — that IS the question. I don’t begrudge successful commercial artists their fame and fortune, and every artist, honest or not, faces a zillion questions in pursuit of making a living while pursuing their art. I would not assume Botti or Kenny G are less honest than Miles or Chet Baker. I don’t think it’s possible to lie very long when you’re playing music. Nobody can try to play less than well enough to accomplish their goals.

          Promoting big bands — why? Do they deserve it? Do they make music that lots of people all over the world really want to hear (or dance to, which was their genesis) now? Some do, and I would like to see more tour support in terms of travel and lodging subsidies, as it is awfully expensive to cover the overhead for 18 musicians. But I was distressed that my friend the late Butch Morris never received U.Sl funding, public or private, for his genuinely innovative, iconoclastic and productive Conduction method. Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra and Adam Rudolph’s Go Global Orchestra also face imposing challenges, while the JLCO commands high fees and is eagerly sought by performing arts institutions around the world. I don’t trust arts funding panels (and I’ve sat on several) any more than the general public to support true breakthroughs rather than the proven talents. Let’s fund projects that engage, enlighten, enrich our friends and neighbors so that they want more. Let’s devise ways to make the arts accessible at low or modest cost to all people everywhere. Let’s deglamorize schlock and bling. There’s a lot to do, and a lot that can be done even if the powers that be don’t think it’s worth their while to throw a few pence at performing and creative artists.

          • says

            Your views of Kenny G are pretty generous. Here’s Pat Metheny calling for a boycott of his recordings. He starts out with a consciously measured tone and ends up in a cussing fit:


            Jazz musicians pride themselves on financial autonomy and answering to the public. And yet those reaching the biggest public are often held in contempt by many jazz musicians. I noticed, for example, that Doug Ramsey on Rifftides refused to even talk about Botti. How is jazz’s internal contradiction between authenticity and the demands of the market resolved?

            I would like to have seen Kenton’s ideas continue to develop, but his experiments were no longer commercial. Jazz increasingly straddled worlds between art music and commercial music in ways that are impossible to disentangle. In the process it had to spend a lot of time in Europe where its non-commercial side could be supported.

            And back to the topic, the effect for the culture of cities like Harlem, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Las Vegas, were catastrophic (at least in my view.) Then in the 90s jazz accepted the idea that it is history and created a legacy revival with groups like LCJO. Jazz became art music supported by donations.

            Jazz has always been, at least in part, a response to indignity. So there’s this big irony that jazz funded by donations risks losing a kind of autonomy that it defines as a part of its dignity,

          • says

            Personally I hate the notion that jazz is “history.” If that is really the case, I’m finding another music. . .maybe I’ll call it “jazz beyond jazz” . . .

          • says

            LCJO seems to take a historic approach (and does it very well) but surely it isn’t an idle hope to think jazz has a huge future. For one thing, women jazzers are building a lot of momentum and are bringing new energy to the field. They might even change the way jazz thinks about itself, including about how it is funded. Where there’s lots of room to grow, humans grow.


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