Crossposted at the Fractured Atlas blog

As a Watertown, MA native, I know how proud New England is of its firsts. So it doesn’t surprise me that New England has for a long time been on the forefront of the national conversation about the creative economy, thanks in no small part to the longtime leadership of the New England Foundation for the Arts, which has been on the economic impact case since 1978. More recently, the agency has published several reports seeking to define the contours of this nebulous term called the “creative economy,” while the former industrial center of North Adams, MA has undergone an arts-led transformation with national implications thanks to the arrival of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art a little over ten years ago, and Massachusetts became the first state in the country to hire a full-time creative industry director in its economic development office.

Yet even with all of that progress, until now there has never been a physical forum for interaction among creative economy professionals in the region. So it was that Connecting New England’s Creative Communities, co-hosted by the New England Foundation for the Arts and the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, came into being.

I attended the inaugural conversation this week in Providence, RI, and took down some notes so that I could share the highlights with you. Enjoy, and keep those connections alive.

Day 1

A sold-out crowd packed Trinity Repertory Theatre’s upstairs space to hear four panelists, including RISD graduate and former Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne, talk about “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around.” Each panelist gave a presentation (Byrne spoke about his bike travels through cities across the world; Samuel Zipp gave us a tour through the history of bicycling; Barry Schiller shared tips on being a better bicycle advocate; and Thomas Deller reported on steps the city of Providence is taking to make life easier for bikers), and then the floor was opened up for questions. Highlights for me included the revelation that Chicago has a bicycle parking lot with showers in Millennium Park, learning about an innovative, ad-supported Zipcar-esque bike sharing program in Paris, and that Providence experimented back in the ’60s with closing Westminster St. to automobile traffic, but that it backfired because population density was too low.

Judging from a glance around the room and the kinds of questions asked, the event was successful at drawing a wonderfully mixed crowd, with perhaps a third from the conference, a third from the local student population, and a third from the bicycling community. Unfortunately, I felt that the opportunities to speak to the shared connections among these groups was mostly missed, as the content of the session focused almost exclusively on transportation history and policy. Except for Byrne, none of the other panelists really made any effort to adapt their messages to arts-aware ears, while in contrast Mayor David Cicilline’s introduction focused almost exclusively on the city’s support for the arts and barely mentioned transportation at all. All in all, it was a rather strange event, exacerbated by a steady stream of departures that resulted in the room having half-emptied by the time it was over. In any case, I applaud the forward-thinking programming that led to the collision of disparate worlds in the room, but urge anyone who might be thinking about organizing similar events in the future to think hard about where the points of intersection are and make sure the panelists are prepared to address them explicitly.

Day 2

The first session of the day, “Beyond Our Borders: Planning, Policy, and Prosperity in New England,” featured contributions from Jason Schupbach, Massachusetts’s aforementioned creative industry director, Helena Fruscio, the founding director of Berkshire Creative, and Jack Templin, founder of Providence Geeks and generally a smart guy around town. Here are some of my takeaways from that session:

  • The biggest design employer in Massachusetts is actually Fidelity Investments, with some 500 design-related jobs, and design employs more people in MA than biotech.
  • Jason referred to a poll of the technology community asking where they would most like to open a new business. Massachusetts was #2 and one of only two US locations to make the top 5 (the others were California, Israel, China, and India). His interpretation was that New England has a key role to play in preventing tech jobs from going overseas.
  • When game developer Harmonix released The Beatles: Rock Band, Jason’s office arranged for the proclamation of Video Game Innovation Day in Massachusetts. The proclamation went viral in the gaming community and was translated into 15 languages while appearing on 350 websites.
  • Berkshire Creative has a lot of interesting things going on, but one that especially caught my attention was a fascinating microsavings program called Assets for Artists. With the help of federal Community Development Block Grant funds, the program matches artists’ savings towards the purchase of a first home or a business-related investment.
  • Jack Templin offered a vivid, if somewhat mind-bending, metaphor for where economic development is heading: Econ Dev 1.0 is like hunting elephants, using money as the weapon, and whoever brings home the biggest elephant wins; Econ Dev 2.0 is like organic farming. He opined that the key to New England’s success is to retain more of the young people who flow through the region’s colleges every year.

Over lunch, we heard from Mayor Cicilline again, and he offered this important insight: there’s only so much that cities themselves can do to drive collaboration, because at a number of fundamental levels they are in competition with each other. Thus, it’s up to the private and nonprofit sectors to force cities to think in collaborative frames.

The afternoon sessions were where we started to break off and pursue separate tracks. I stayed in the main room for “New Conduits for Creativity,” which looked at tends and advances in rural arts development, new and hybrid organizational forms, and marketing/social media. Here’s what I learned:

  • Many rural areas are still struggling with broadband access. This is a major factor to consider when developing strategies for reaching these populations.
  • Especially in rural areas, many artists qualify for affordable housing initiatives from the federal and state government but may not realize it. Arts agencies can help make that connection.
  • Because of scale issues, a single uncooperative landlord who happens to own three or four key properties can really mess up a small town’s development.
  • Attendees pointed to Providence’s own AS220 as an example of a successful hybrid nonprofit model. Other models and relevant organizations mentioned included Union Square Main Streets, Springstep, Third Sector New England, ALIVE Communities, and a report on the Irvine Foundation’s website called “Convergence: How Five Trends Will Shape the Nonprofit Sector.”
  • While some organizations have managed to grow strong social media fan bases thanks to the help of student interns, it’s important not to underestimate the labor input required to keep those relationships maintained.
  • Partnerships with organizations that have existing infrastructure can be very helpful to expanding a small organization’s or community’s reach, so that everybody’s not just reinventing the wheel.

Then it was off to “Facing Facts: Getting Results with Data.” While I was disappointed that Chris Dwyer of RMC Research, who I’d been looking forward to meeting, was not able to attend due to illness, there was still a good turnout for this session. We had some interesting discussions about data analysis:

  • Meri Jenkins from the Massachusetts Cultural Council offered a historical perspective on arts-led revitalization efforts: they emerged from the failure of the “Econ Development 1.0” strategies in the 20th century to reach communities at the neighborhood level. Sounds like I have some more reading to catch up on.
  • Jennifer Hutchins from the Muskie School indicated that she’s observed a common development model for small places: all of them had a certain package of assets, which were then activated through networking and leadership that led to larger initiatives.
  • There was some discussion about whether researchers in the arts are too timid about presenting their findings and offer too many disclaimers. For example, two economic impact studies of Providence/RI (one from Americans for the Arts, and one from NEFA) come to dramatically different conclusions because of differing methodologies. I was a little surprised at how much enthusiasm there was in the room for presenting one’s favored numbers as is and letting the chips fall where they may. I suppose the job of arts advocates is to work with what you have, but on the research side if we know that there are problems with or questions about our numbers, it not only isn’t terribly ethical to represent them with more confidence than we actually feel about them, it’s not a good strategy for the long term. It goes against a trend toward transparency in the broader philanthropy/nonprofit world and it may well paint us into a rhetorical corner from which it’s hard to work on improving those metrics.
  • Though most of the discussion focused on economic data, there seemed to be a general desire to move on to measuring broader social impacts as well. Animating Democracy has been working on a series of reports that sound like they’re going to be important in this regard; look for notice here when they’re released.

After a quick dinner at DownCity Diner as part of a visual arts dine-around, I checked out what’s become a sort of grassroots mini-TED Conference, Pecha Kucha. The monthly meetup features 10 speakers who each get to present 20 slides of 20 seconds each (it advances automatically). Former US Senator and current RI gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee was #2 on Wednesday evening’s lineup, and spoke about his recent trip to Liberia.

Day 3

For me, the highlight of Thursday morning, despite the 8am start time, was getting to hear Margy Waller of the Fine Arts Fund talk about the Arts Ripple Effect study. I’ve blogged about this study before, so I won’t go into detail about what it says, but suffice to say that it is the result of an extensive exploration into what Cincinnati-area residents actually think about the arts, whether they’ve had any previous contact with them or not. The results are surprising and illuminating and beg for replication in another community, since at this point it’s hard to disentangle what aspects of the findings are universal and what may be due to noise and/or regional idiosyncrasies.

The major takeaway from the study is that most arguments that we usually use to make the case for the arts to average citizens (this is an important distinction: we’re not talking about legislators here) fail. They fail not because people actively oppose them, by and large – for the most part people like the arts and think they’re nice enough. They just don’t think the arts are necessary, and it’s very hard to move them to a place where they start to feel a sense of public responsibility about the arts rather than dealing with them on individual terms. The Ripple Effect study found two arguments that seemed to do the trick, each presented within the broader frame that the arts have “surprising ripple effects” on communities and that people can benefit from them whether or not they actually participate themselves. The first is a sense of neighborhood vibrancy – essentially an economic-impact argument for the arts that moves away from dollars, cents, and numbers, and instead tries to draw a picture of reactivated storefronts, increased foot traffic, new business for local restaurants and other establishments, and people out having a good time. The second is an argument that the arts bring people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet; essentially, that they build social capital. Notably, these two arguments correspond to the two “public instrumental” benefits of the arts identified in the RAND Corporation’s landmark Gifts of the Muse study.

As positive a reaction as I initially had to the Ripple Effect study, its conclusions still seemed a little vague to me, and I wasn’t understanding how they were so different from what we were already doing. Three videos that Margy showed during her speech filled in the blanks for me. The first two were from a story that Fine Arts Fund placed on a local news channel about Shepard Fairey’s opening at the Contemporary Art Center. There were two segments, one at 5pm and one at 11pm (only the 5pm is currently online; I’ll link to the 11pm if it gets added later). While the 5pm story was a fairly standard, if quite positive, take on arts events drawing people to the city, the 11pm segment took a behind the scenes look at restaurants whose business was impacted by all the foot traffic. One sushi place didn’t even realize the arts events were happening and found itself overwhelmed with customers; another restauranteur talked eloquently about how great the arts were for her bottom line. I hadn’t seen anything like it on a news program before. And notably, there were no numbers, no statistics — only forms of the word “vibrant” repeated again and again. It was incredibly effective.

The third video was the Fine Arts Fund’s own fundraising pitch, which involved the organization of a secret “splash dance” with music contributed by local artists. I’ll just embed this one and let you watch for yourself – don’t miss the woman of a certain age kicking ass at 2:24:

Note the message: the arts are fun and bring people – people like you – together.

All in all, I was glad to see Connecting New England’s Creative Communities come to pass. The organizers did a strong job on a short timeline, and it’s clear that the issues at hand are on the minds of many, not just in New England but all over the country and the world. Moreover, the kind of networking and leadership on display at the conference matches exactly with the development model for small communities identified during the “Facing Facts” panel. Maybe’s not just for small communities after all. As several attendees pointed out, the challenge is to keep the momentum going – but this is certainly a good start.

  • Wow, this sounds like it was a great event. I would love to have been there to learn how we could better structure/promote our event. We’re going to gather thought leaders from all over the USA in April to talk about very similar topics. If you feel it’s appropriate, we’d love your readers to know more about the event. Either way, great job!

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