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The 'Art' of Economic Planning

As some proclaim the arts as 'necessary ingredients to a successful region's habitat,' a cultural studies professor offers words of caution.
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Across the country, municipal, regional and state agencies are dropping old funding and administrative categories such as "arts and crafts" and replacing them with "creative industries" (tourism, books and museums).

The same thing is happening in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Why? Such initiatives are responses to these locations recognizing that their economic future lies in finance capital, copyrights and patents rather than agriculture and manufacturing.

The National Governors Association argues that "innovative commercial businesses, nonprofit institutions and independent artists all have become necessary ingredients to a successful region's habitat."

Here's one example that explains why: The Intellectual Property Association estimates that intellectual property copyrights and patents are worth $360 billion per year in the United States, putting them ahead of patents in aerospace, automobiles and agriculture in monetary value.
These copyrights, which help fuel a creative or cultural sector (music, theater and film), employ 12 percent of the work force, which is up from 5 percent a century ago. This change reflects U.S. economic production shifting away from a farming and manufacturing base to one supported by cultural interests.

At the same time, some words of caution are needed for those who see arts as the center of a successful region. This vision is supported by consultants across the nation who seek out a "creative class" that they claim is revitalizing post-industrial towns through an elixir of cultural tolerance, technology and talent, as measured by the numbers of same-sex households, broadband connections and advanced degrees.

Even if this claim about a creative class were accurate, many successful cities in the United States are hyperconservative (for example, cities such as Houston, Orlando and Phoenix). And there is no evidence of an overlap of tastes, values, living arrangements and locations between artists and other professionals.

In fact, some surveys question the claim that quality of life is central to selecting locations for business campuses as opposed to low costs, good communications technology, proximity to markets and adequate transportation systems.

In Europe, a commission evaluation of 29 "cities of culture" disclosed that its principal goal — economic growth stimulated by the public support of arts to renew failed regions — has itself failed.

Glasgow, for instance, was initially hailed as a success of the program, but many years after the rhetoric, there has been no sustained growth.

In 2008, Liverpool will become an official city of culture, having allocated $3 billion in public funds to an arts program, museum, galleries, convention center, a retail outlet, renewed transportation, rebuilt waterfront and every good thing. This was premised on regeneration through an arts culture, but is that a foundation strong enough to sustain a lasting economy?

The upshot of talk about the value of the arts is that market objectives have superseded cultural ones. In other words, the concept of "creative cities" has led to creative ways of euphemizing gentrification for the middle class.

North American cities should embrace the cultural amenities in terms of their contribution to the city's quality of life, but they must beware of dubious hype that overemphasizes the centrality of the creative sector for the region's economic health.

Toby Miller is chairman of the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside.