Monday, June 22, 2009

Sense of Place III: Richard Florida's View on Creating Arts Communities

Well, not directly. Richard Florida's seminal book The Rise of the Creative Class doesn't particularly speak about the arts as a distinct phenomenon. His book is mostly concerned with the Creative Class, which encapsulates artists, engineers, architects, etc. etc. etc. We are only included inasmuch as we are part of that movement, and when Richard Florida talks about the "Rise" of the Creative Class, it doesn't feel like he's talking about us: he's talking about our creative cousins in the Entertainment world, or in the Software world, or the Engineering world. Whereas those other realms are exploding, the fine arts and drama continue to decline.

Before I say anything more, bear in mind: I'm on page 3 of the book (which is better than it sounds; I've made it through two prefaces already).

But his conclusions seem just as valid for the arts world as they are for the other realms. And whereas the Thriving Arts Report speaks to small communities (10-30k, on average, it seems), the Rise of the Creative Class is basically only talking about cities.

So one of the points he makes exceedingly early on (p. xxviii, before you even get to Chapter 1) is that for the Creative Class, as opposed to other industries, people don't follow jobs, jobs follow people.

That's a big whopping surprising point, and it seems to jive pretty well with my own personal experience, is that people make their choice of where they want to live based on, well, where they want to live. Which from a common-sense perspective seems like a duh moment, but it's in opposition to the economic supply/demand view that people will be driven to where there are job opportunities.

The art community is probably the biggest proof of this. Why do theater people pile into NYC when they could probably start a company much, much easier in a low-rent, low-competition community? Because they'd feel left out, unsupported; there isn't a "community" to join.

R. Florida goes on to postulate that place has become the central organizing unit of the economy, not job. Whereas previously, people lived in Flint, MI for their whole lives because that's where their job was, and they met and knew people because those were the people in their local economy.

SO: What does this mean for our "generating arts communities" conversation?

Well, in the same vein as the Thriving Arts Report's "Background Values" (of which Sense of Place was one, in agreement with R. Florida), Florida puts forward a few Indexes to try and to forecast where the Creative Class congregates. I haven't gotten to the full indexes (I'm on like p. 30 now that I'm at the end of this post), but so far he's mentioned:

The Gay Index
The Bohemian Index
The Melting Pot Index

all of which he uses to comprise:

The Tolerance Index.

What he's basically saying is that there is one central Background Value that the Thriving Arts Report missed: there needs to be an OPEN community for arts (and other creative classes) to thrive.

Yet the Thriving Arts Report cites two fantastic examples of arts CREATING the open community (arts integrating the Hmong and the Amish in small Minnesota towns). This, I think, goes back to my father (a manager--Whyte's Organizational Man--who rose through the ranks of the Creative Class of Software Engineering) and his reaction when I told him about this: the cycle is recursive, either recursively positive or recursively negative.

If you have an open society, artists come. If artists come, creativity thrives. If creativity thrives, artists come. Etc. And the opposite is true.

But at any rate, what we're aiming at is breaking the cycle, and therefore Richard Florida seems to be saying (so far) that this is what's necessary to cultivate arts (and other creative fields):

1) Recognize that place is more important than economy.
2) Recognize that place is a cultural, creative experience.
3) Recognize that cultural, creative experiences require openness and tolerance.

So, there's one revelation so far. There are others on their way.

P.S. Richard Florida also explains, in his chart, why every single artist I've met from Florida (the state) has been from Gainesville, including the head of my program. Gainesville is on his list alongside Boulder, CO at the top of small communities with high Creative Index scores.


Ian David Moss said...

You may have seen this already, but I did an extended review of RotCC a couple of months ago at Createquity ( as well as a follow-up looking at some of the studies that have tested his theories empirically ( I'll be interested to hear what conclusions you come to after reading it for yourself.

Scott Walters said...

I'm on the fence about your conclusions. Generally speaking, I don't think Florida is wrong per se, but I believe he is being USED poorly by people when they make their choices of where they would like to live. Yes, if it is all about me, then I ought to choose the place where I'll be "happiest," but the result is the increasing polarization of society where people only live with the people with whom they already agree. If you use Florida as a guide, you essentially create gated communities of like-minded people, which is the opposite of the conditions necessary for democracy to function.

Furthermore, I think you are missing the impact of mythology -- and this, in essence, is what your father is saying, too. Over the past 100 years, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, NYC has been held up as the only place where there is a community for theatre people who are "professionally oriented." This, then, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I have been part of theatre communities every bit as lively as NYC in Minneapolis, for instance. But what Minneapolis lacks is the mythology.

In addition, why do artists feel it is necessary to hang out only with other artists? Why can't they create art amid a community of non-artists, and take some inspiration from people outside the artistic gated community? In an age of information such as ours, there is inspiration available everywhere, but artists cluster together like abandoned waifs. Isn't it time that we actually start behaving like adults and citizens and become members of a community larger than our mirror?