Last week, I read an article on Grist on such topic and this caught my attention:
But if the goal is to strengthen local economies, are these people wise to throw their money at artists? Wouldn’t foundations and government agencies be better off putting their money toward industries that create real jobs?
So what are real jobs anyways? Accountant? Personal finance manager? Machinist? Assembly line manager? Is it a smart decision to invest in local arts and culture when funding for public services are being cut back? Are we even solving the right problem?
Here, the story focuses on Detroit FAB Labs who won a grant from ArtPlace America to inject life into local economies and transform them through “creative placemaking”. The plan is to play to Detroit’s ‘culture of making’ to revive its manufacturing economy.
While investing in the sector is high-profile and often praise-worthy, I can empathize with doubtful residents who are often resentful at public spending on seemingly superfluous activity with hard-to-measure results. For those who are working tirelessly to make ends meet, they have neither the time nor money to contribute to ” arts & culture”; Their concerns are immediate and short-term. They might not have a big safety net or any room to fail. Many see that public funding, coming out of residents’ tax dollars, would be better spent on welfare or skills training that would measurably increase their income. Taking lessons from Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, who cares about self-actualization or actualization of the community if one is having trouble putting food on the table or finding a stable shelter?
Daniel D’Oca, an urban designer, is perceptive when he said that, “…we shouldn’t assume that arts funding is economic development spending” but is investing in creative placemaking such an awful idea as some people claim? How could placemaking transform the local economy?
Creative placemaking empowers people to speak up and have their voices heard. It may seem myopic to focus on the arts but I believe it functions as an underlying connector between multiple sectors. Art, design, and culture build the social infrastructure that’s required for a broader social change. While at the onset, this strategy sacrifices short-term gains for a longer-term vision, I think this creates a fairer and more democratic society.
Anyone can contribute to arts and culture. Their creation depend on the person’s personal agency (but often depends on finding the time to do it) and right now, these voices are fueling the Occupy movement around the world. People are using creative placemaking to leverage the collective knowledge, experiences, and voices to fuel social change.
Sarah Goodyear very recently wrote about the creative genius of OccupyWallstreet explaining that:
Fed up with a broken system that delivers little of what it promises, they are using urban public space as an open-source laboratory for social change.
In her own words, “It’s a creative commons approach to the physical commons.” Investing in such creative placemaking is a sort of civic prototyping that expects failures but crowdsources solutions from lessons learned. Its inclusive nature encourages conversations and discussions that promotes grassroots, bottom-up change. When so much of economic development initiatives are top-down and centrally-controlled, it seems that what people especially yearn for are opportunities to connect and voice their concerns.
Funding arts and culture initiatives comes in many varieties and flavors. Would investing in a provocative public installation help revive the local economy? It’s possible. In the case of Detroit FAB Lab, ArtPlace America is investing in creating a culture of entrepreneurialism and providing tools and resources to ignite a creative economy. It’s not as inclusive as the Occupy movement but I’m hopeful for the FAB Lab to succeed, given Detroit’s strength in the business and technical ability of making things.
So what lies beyond investing in pockets of activities to revitalize struggling cities? The overall goal shouldn’t be based on either/or mentality - it should be viewed as an ecosystem. Ben Hecht wrote about an insightful piece of advice here which he received from the Cisco funders of his organization, One Economy Corporation:
You can’t solve this problem alone. You’re rebuilding an ecosystem. Who are the other organizations that must be part of your solution if this is going to succeed?
He detailed this approach to social change as dynamic collaboration. Even though arts and culture funding may not equal economic development spending, what these two ‘approaches’ represent are the meeting of bottom-up and top-down strategies to transform local economies. And cities, especially public places, could facilitate this dynamic collaboration. The setting doesn’t even have to be a plaza or a park; This could happen at a table where multiple sectors can commit to come together to solve problems.
If Iceland’s current president has any say, it’s to invest in clean energy.
How I see investments in arts, design, and culture is that they provide the context for the transformation and help accelerate social change (easier now with social media tools). They provide opportunities for residents to shape their communities but the spark happens when civic and business leaders listen to their community and the community give their trust to those leaders. The challenge is to put the right leaders in place who are skilled at dynamic collaboration. (Would women make better leaders in that context?)
And constantly adapt and learn from failures, of course.