The Arts and Culture as Economic Drivers: Ideas and US Best Practices

By Greg Baeker

A series of reports have focused on the role of cultural resources in advancing economic and broader community development agendas. Rust Belt to Artists Belt: Challenges and Opportunities in Rust Belt Cities addresses the challenges associated with the transition from industrial to creative economies and the role of artists and creators in supporting this economic restructuring. The report examines the issue from two perspectives – what artists offer rust belt cities and what rust belt cities offer artists.

Artists offer rust belt cities migration and regeneration of inner cities, growth in small business, boosts to property values, neighbourhood engagement, civic vitality, and youth development. Conversely, rust belt cities offer artists affordability and low cost housing, community development agencies and venture capital, existing high-quality arts and cultural assets, proximity to markets, and diverse types of spaces.

The National Governors Association in the United States has for decades been an innovative source of policy ideas and best practices related to major issues and challenges confronting U.S. cities. Its recent report New Engines of Growth: Five Roles for Arts, Culture and Design examines how these cultural resources can “support high-growth industries, accelerate innovation, foster entrepreneurial activity, address unemployment, build human capital and revive distressed areas.”  In assembling partnerships and alliances to further economic growth, the report cites a growing number of governors moving beyond economic and workforce agencies to include state arts agencies in an “all hands on deck” approach.

The report explores five ways in which arts, culture and design can assist states with economic growth. A chapter is devoted to each of these five roles and each is rich with insightful policy analysis and related best practices.

1. Provide a fast-growth, dynamic industry cluster

Here the report urges states to adopt a broader vision of the creative cluster to include not only traditional visual artists, cultural performances and nonprofit institutions, but also such large economic sectors as entertainment, fashion, publishing, and broadcasting. It describes this enlarged vision of the sector as “among the fastest-growing and most export-oriented sectors of the American economy.”

2. Help mature industries become more competitive

This role focuses in particular on the role of design. It cites leading companies such as Apple and Google that have achieved major market success by using design to make their products user-friendly, address consumer needs, and drive innovation in areas from product development to advertising practices.

3. Provide the critical ingredients for innovative places

This analysis focuses on the importance of US cities becoming innovation hubs through new business models stressing co-location and constant interaction among different industries and creative workers. The report cites a range of initiatives in which states are designing spaces and establishing networks to link artists more strategically with one another and with creative businesses and property developers.

4. Catalyze community revitalization

Here the arts, culture and design sector is cited as a catalyst for reclaiming physical infrastructure such as abandoned buildings or neglected urban neighbourhoods. Reclaiming abandoned heritage buildings reminds us of Jane Jacob’s adage “new ideas need old buildings.” A series of best practices are cited related to (among other examples) the role of establishing arts and design districts and encouraging historic preservation in turning around distressed areas.

5. Deliver a better prepared workforce

For many years research has confirmed the importance of cultivating creativity as a core workforce skill for the 21st century. Policies and practices here recognize the value of art and design in the development of workforce skills and point to success in integrating formal curriculum requirements in primary and secondary education.

The report is valuable for connecting new policy ideas and economic development assumptions with practical examples demonstrating the implementation of these ideas. It concludes with a series of specific policy recommendations in each of the five areas.