By Christopher Farrell A vibrant arts community adds to the quality of life in a region. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh anchor arts in their region. But the artistic dividend is much more than an opportunity to view Tywla Tharp's choreography or stand in line for a Tennessee Williams revival. Artists are significant and vastly underestimated contributors and generators of local economic growth. The more creative types working in a regional economy, the better is its outlook for improved earnings, productivity, and competitiveness.
Advocates for the arts have long made a strong case that the local economy benefits from museums, theaters, orchestras, galleries, and similar institutions. Yet looking at the art establishment and its events misses much of the positive economic impact from the arts, argue professors Ann Markusen and David King of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. In their newly published research paper, The Artistic Dividend: The Arts' Hidden Contributions to Regional Economic Development, the scholars treat art as an occupation that includes actors, directors, performance artists, dancers, choreographers, composers, musicians, authors, writers, sculptors, and photographers. Artists export their work over the Internet, at art fairs, and other venues. Artists teach other aspiring artists.
INDUSTRY VS. ART. They also create business for specialized suppliers of material and labor, such as printers and accountants. Many of these career artists also earn an income contributing to the design and marketing of a region's products. According to Markusen and King, "The larger business community benefits from the presence of a vibrant arts community, not only because it helps firms recruit skilled workers to the region but also because it provides a pool of talent for them to draw upon for special design, organizational, and marketing efforts."
Their research has implications for local economic-development initiatives. Over the past several decades, regional economic development has largely meant hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to lure manufacturing plants, downtown headquarter buildings, and industries. But a large body of economic research suggests the bidding wars are a zero-sum game at best.
Government would do far better figuring out ways to improve the region's human capital, especially its local artistic and creative labor pool. State and local governments might get more bang for their development buck by making it easier to transform aging industrial space into artists' studios instead of pouring billions of dollars into downtown revitalization projects. Similarly, public and private partnerships could build bridges between self-employed artists and local businesses.
INVITING THE MUSE. Ever since the Romantic era, popular perception has it that artists and their creative spirit can only flourish when holed up in a garret far away from the crass, materialistic world of business, politics, and society. Only a handful of isolated geniuses make it, while everyone else gives up and takes up a "real" career.
Both notions are wrong. Wordsworth wrote political pamphlets and Picasso amassed a fortune. And thanks to the rise of the Internet, the corporate embrace of outsourcing and contract employees, as well as the spread of resources for the self-employed, more and more artists see themselves as entrepreneurs making a long-term living off their creativity.
They tap into the same set of skills exploited by any other business innovator: Know the market. Understand the economics of the trade. Promote the product. Network with colleagues. Work with suppliers. Keep close tabs on the cost of creation. Delve deeply into the pragmatics of pricing. "You're really running a small business," says Carroll Michels, a career coach for artists based in Long Island. "There's no way around it."
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. Several years ago, I went to a retrospective exhibit of the late Joseph Beuys at the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis. A contemporary of Andy Warhol, Beuys was prolific German artist and political activist with heady ambitions to transform the world. Now, his art did nothing for me: a giant, ugly felt suit hanging on a wall, a large clear glass bottle with green water, a sled with a blanket and a hat, a hare on a sugar packet, 550 gray felt erasers with bright yellow labels. (Joan Rothfuss, associate curator at the Walker, suggested that the yellow was related to the color of sulfur, a kind of healing mineral but also a poisonous mineral, so perhaps I might want to think about the duality of that relationship. Right.)
But then I saw a poster over on one wall with the words "Creativity Equals Capital" in bright red, block letters. "He used 'art equals capital' quite often as a slogan," says Joan Rothfuss. "He meant to suggest that the new monetary instrument could be human creativity rather than money."
That's a pretty good slogan for economic development in the new economy. Farrell is contributing economics editor for BusinessWeek. His Sound Money radio commentaries are broadcast over Minnesota Public Radio on Saturdays in nearly 200 markets nationwide. Follow his weekly Sound Money column, only on BusinessWeek Online