Art & Community

The Value of Art to the Local Economy

A Brief Lesson in Cultural Economics (Part 1)

By Deborah McCunn

Arts and culture are absolutely vital to any city wanting to thrive in the information age.  Further, a strong artist population is a critical part of any healthy community.  A vibrant group of artists can help stimulate the economy, build social inclusion, weave social cohesion and improve education as well as strengthen community pride and identity. 

The importance of art and culture in building cities that thrive culturally and economically has long been recognized. British
economist, John Maynard Keynes, noted the importance of supporting local arts. He believed that resident artists were vital to preserving local identity and stimulating the local economy. As early as 1945, Keynes expressed a concern that globalization would result in the homogenization of arts and destroy local culture and identity.  


More recently, a growing body of evidence reveals that artists make significant contributions to the economy of city life.  For
example, Richard Florida argues in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, that artists and the ‘creative class’ are critical to urban prosperity in the new knowledge economy.  The ‘creative class’ is made up of talented and innovative individuals who now drive our economy. This group includes all forms of creativity from scientists and researchers to Internet experts and entrepreneurs. Florida’s research concludes that educated and talented individuals who are at the core of the knowledge economy are attracted to cities rich in culture and local identity. Many cities substitute organically rooted art and identity for theme-park type culture such as chain coffee shops, restaurants and galleries (example: Thomas Kincaid Galleries). The ‘creative class’ are in search of authentic, organically rooted art and culture when selecting places to live and visit; unique places rich with local identity.

The urban planning perspective echoes the value of retaining local artists. Both Jane Jacobs (1961) and Sharon Zukin (1995) emphasize the importance of the artistic bohemian lifestyle that evolves organically in some mixed-use neighborhoods. The authentic culture and contemporary synergy between the diverse actors in these mixed-use spaces have attracted growing attention as urban planners attempt to invigorate their downtown environment. More than just public art and open space, organic street culture tends to evolve in clusters along streets with multiple small venues, usually locally owned. This mixed-use space usually includes coffee shops, restaurants, bars, galleries, bookstores and live performance venues for music, film and
theatre. The eclectic nature of the street scene also serves as an incubator for new hybrid art forms and ideas – the foundation for art and creativity. 
Florida cautions cities, however, when attempting to recreate the bohemian neighborhood.  The commercialization of an experience can eliminate authentic and original content. The spread of large corporations is creating a growing number of generic experiences in dining and entertainment. According to Florida, the creative class are aware of this and avoid generic chain outlets of bars, restaurants and retailers. They will continue to seek out authentic, indigenous and organic venues. Arts and culture audiences as well as tourists are becoming increasingly sceptical of the ‘slick logo-type urban spectacle development’ and are now searching for cities that can offer a more unique or genuine experience. Cities trying to attract tourists and the creative class must generate and nurture their own unique authentic culture.

At the heart of organic culture is the local artist. Cities that can nurture local arts will be the cities to successfully attract and retain the ‘creative class’ and thrive economically. A recent report issued by the Urban Institute (May 2006) revealed that 96% of Americans state that they are inspired and moved by various types of art. However, only 27% said artists contribute ‘a lot’ to the good of society. This research concludes that there is a significant societal disconnect between valuing the art produced by artists and recognizing the value of the local artists themselves. Retaining and nurturing our local artists is a vital element in preserving our own unique identity. Investing in the cultural life of our community and promoting a local environment that can incubate the creative work of our artists is essential to the long term economic success of Bellingham.   

Preserving Space for Artists

Lessons in Cultural Economics – Part II

By Deborah McCunn

Art is not just a representation or reproduction of the world. Art makes the audience view the world differently, enhances understanding and provides insight. An artist presents a snapshot of the world by adding his or her perspective giving depth to the subject. Art allows the audience to understand and experience emotions and thoughts that language alone cannot transcend. The value of art and culture is in part due to art’s ability to open a sixth sense beyond that of touch, sound, sight, taste and smell. Art can build identity, tolerance, understanding and aspiration among communities. 

But communities do not always appreciate the contributions of local art until it is too late. It is artists who initially congregate in abandoned industrial buildings or mixed-use urban areas, painting the neighborhood with a bohemian brush and contributing to the vibrancy and diversity of the community. Unfortunately, all too often, as the neighborhood becomes more popular, the demands of developers override those of the residents and economically driven plans are approved allowing the construction of expensive single use dwellings. The neighborhood becomes homogeneous, the chain stores move in and the artists move out, either because they are priced out of the market or they have no interest in living a bland, single use neighborhood.

This pattern has been repeating across the US and Europe since the 1930s in cities including Amsterdam, London and New York. One of the most frequently cited examples is Greenwich Village in the late 1970s. As factories and sweat shops moved out of Greenwich Village from 1950 to 1970, artists began to occupy empty industrial space. The vacant industrial sites provided high ceilings, abundant natural light and large open spaces at a cheap price. It was not uncommon for the buildings to have no heat and water when artists moved in. The surrounding neighborhood was usually a noisy, dirty industrial area.  But large open spaces and cheap rent were perfect for local artists. It wasn’t long before antique dealers followed the artists along with a few corner grocers to support the newly emerging mixed use neighborhood. A new vibrant bohemian environment blossomed around the local artists.

By the middle of the 1970s, Americans were becoming disillusioned by suburbia. Oppressive homogeneity and burdensome commute times were leading Americans to question the suburban model of life they had been sold. Within a two year period, from 1977 to 1979, Greenwich Village reached a tipping point. The bohemian neighborhood with its unique architecture, sense of history and identity was suddenly a trendy place to live. Real estate prices escalated rapidly, driving the local artists out of the neighborhood. 


We don’t have to look to the other side of the country to observe this cycle. It’s happening in our own community right now.  Local artists have congregated in low rent buildings in Old Town, where they might not have heat, but the rent is affordable. There are approximately 50 artist’s studios in Old Town; the Waterfront Collective, Dream Space Studios and a few in Bay Street Village. Each building has an extensive waiting list as studio space is increasing difficult to find in Bellingham. Both the Waterfront Collective and the Dream Space Studio artists are on month-to-month leases providing the landlords the option of eviction if an economic opportunity arises. There is growing anxiety among these artists and others that they will lose their studio space as our waterfront plans progress. Current projections indicate that within the next three to five years, there will be less that one dozen affordable studios left in Old Town.

This challenge is not unique to Bellingham. Many cities implement regeneration plans to improve urban areas. Declining city centers are gentrified and developers bring in upper end condos and chain stores. But the pursuit of a cosmetically beautified city center brings a potential danger that divergent interests may lead to a homogeneous, theme park culture that is not sustainable as tourists and the Creative Class (see Part I, January Issue) lose interest. Further, there is a risk that new cultural amenities will only be enjoyed by the upper and middle class increasing social polarization of the area. If revitalization efforts are short sighted and do not invest adequately in the social capital of the existing local community, the result may be increased social tensions and an undermining of local culture. To avoid this, we must create a sustainable model focusing on long-term growth, which includes
nurturing organic art and culture reflecting the unique characteristics and heritage of our community.

Deborah McCunn owns Baker Creek Ceramics. She spent 20 years in the Finance Sector and received an MA from the
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in Regional and Urban Development with a focus on cultural economics and the value of local art. She is currently working as an artist, owns Baker Creek Ceramic Studio and is active in the community to preserve affordable work space for artists.

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