How to develop local creative economies

I am often asked – by people in the arts, business, education, government, politics, and civic issues – “How do we do the creative economy in our community?”  The answer to that question is multi-layered and oh so interesting.  It’s not the case that you can snap your fingers and poof! a creative economy is born.  It’s a process.  A sustainable, community-based economy based on creativity, entrepreneurship and quality of life involves vision, strategies, partnerships, collaborations and a commitment to ongoing effort.  It’s all about making the most of a community’s unique assets and strengths.  Here are some thoughts, ideas and strategies on developing local creative economies.  

How to develop local creative economies

a blog post by Anne Katz, Executive Director, Arts Wisconsin
updated September 2016

Creative economy development strategies

As Director of Wisconsin’s statewide arts service, advocacy and development organization, I work in the world of arts and creative economy development. So I spend a lot of time thinking about and figuring out that issue: just what do we mean by creative economy development?

It’s become clear that the recession is over and we’re now in a new economy – one that is rich with possibilities. It’s an interesting, exciting, stressful time. Let me say first that far smarter people than me, around the world, are doing the work, thinking deeply about it, and creating systems, research paradigms, and best practices.  There are many interesting info, models, best practices, and stories out there:

My thinking and doing has been shaped and directed by all of these people and all this great work that’s being done locally and globally.  In this country, and across the world, we’ve come to a moment in history where we know the old economy is ending, we can see the new economy ahead of us, and we are all trying to define what this new/creative economy means. In general, the funding and support systems, and mindset, for economic and community development and engagement are based on the pre-2008 economy. That means that our systems and mindsets must change.  And change they will, slowly but surely.

A general definition of the creative economy is the intersection of the creative workforce, creative industries and creative communities.   Here are some definitions of the creative economy, from around the world:

  • The enterprises and people involved in the production and distribution of goods and services in which the aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional engagement of the consumer gives the product value in the marketplace. (Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Office)
  • …socio-economic potential of activities that trade with creativity, knowledge and information. (British Council)
  • …21st century jobs that move away from the old methods of industrial development (Global Green Growth Institute)

As an aside, I’m not at all a fan of the term “creative class.” That’s not what creative economy development should be about.  Although it’s become popular shorthand for creative economy development, it only focuses on one segment of the creative sector in an exclusive and to be honest, elitist, way. Arts Wisconsin encourages more inclusive terms to keep the community vibrant and interesting for young people, families, and creative people of all types. A really creative city must recognize and take action on the idea that diversity is what the 21st century is all about. Everyone in a community, regardless of income level, background, or perspective, can bring their creativity to the table and should be able to participate in the creative economy and all that the community has to offer.

How does the creative economy happen? Well, it’s not like there’s a magic wand you can wave and voila! – you’re a creative place, and will stay that way forever. A creative community happens and keeps going over time, with a lot of hard work and consistent attention paid to big and small issues. To become known as a creative place, and to really live that mindset, takes a sense of common purpose and goals, persistence, planning combined with flexibility, big-picture thinking, and a can-do attitude.  It’s vital to admit and learn from challenges and celebrate big and small successes.  The most important thing to remember is that the people on the ground doing the work in their communities are really the experts.

Taken from my own work and from many different sources, here are some commonly-held principles and strategies that can grow and strengthen 21st century economic vitality, education focused on 21st century learning, a vibrant community life, and engaged residents:

  1. Focus on a community’s assets – human, financial, social, economic, educational – while addressing issues and challenges. Support an asset-based community development mindset.
  2. Support a mindset and programs that welcome a multi-cultural, diverse mix of creative people. A rich and ever-evolving mix of income levels, backgrounds, and perspectives enlivens any community.
  3. Prioritize access to the arts – and everything else – for all. Any place can really be recognized for its creativity if that creativity is available for everyone in the community. There must be a diversity of arts opportunities in the community so that everyone can participate in some way, not just those who can afford the price of a ticket.
  4. Arts integrated into education for all students in the public schools is key. All kids deserve and need the arts in the learning process, to help them express themselves and gain the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century world and workforce.   It’s especially important to include the arts and creativity in education in public schools, since school is often the only place many kids get to participate in the arts. Global research and practice show that students with high levels of arts participation outperform other students on virtually every measure from standardized tests to community participation, and that learning through the arts has a significant effect on learning in other areas, particularly in the early years.   Wisconsin’s  21st century education must be all about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).
  5. The arts are not separate from everything else going on in a community. It’s not like only some people are artists and others are not. There’s creativity everywhere and in every person, whether they call themselves (or are called) an artist or not. Creative collaborations, imaginative processes, innovative, thinking and entrepreneurship, connecting arts/business, arts/education, arts/environment, arts/recreation, arts/food, arts/civic issues…the arts and creativity can and should be part of every project, program, organization and effort happening locally and beyond. Partnerships do take work – but community involvement and engagement is the only sustainable way to move forward.
  6. Creative economy growth needs local elected officials and civic leaders who are visible, pro-active, enthusiastic champions of the arts, providing leadership that encourages big picture thinking and is open to new ideas and ways of doing. By the way – if you really want to make change, run for office on the local level. City councils, county boards, and school boards are THE entities that make THE decisions in the community.
  7. Support investment in arts infrastructure – sure, we need buildings, but what we really need is investment in organizational and leadership infrastructure. Creative people will always do a lot with a little, but sufficient and ongoing human, organizational and financial resources must be available to make things happen.
  8. A creative place is built and nurtured through a great quality of life that includes a vibrant street life, arts, food, libraries, parks and other public spaces, local radio stations, museums, bikeways that everyone can enjoy.

PS – Google “creative economy,” “creative industries” and “creative placemaking,” and thousands of interesting links from around the world will come up. Here are a few to check out: