Richard Florida Redux and the Creative Placemaking Backlash

Richard Florida is all over the news again with the release of an updated, 10th-anniversary edition of his most famous book, The Rise of the Creative Class. I’m convinced that someone, someday is going to write a fantastic biography of Richard Florida. He’s such a fascinating figure: the symbol of a decidedly 21st-century concept of urbanism and economic development, someone who became very famous and (it seems) quite wealthy as an academic and public intellectual, and yet who seems to inspire controversy and backlash at every turn. Florida is no stranger to arguing with his critics: his preface to The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited reads like a litany of defensiveness (“my ideas…were widely derided”; “many critics dismissed my notion”; “I caught a lot of flak”; “I was accused of confusing chickens and eggs” etc.).

I’m not sure if Florida expected to get away with re-releasing his book without provoking yet another firestorm, but if that was the plan, it hasn’t exactly worked out. The onslaught started with a piece penned by Frank Bures for a new magazine called Thirty Two based in Minneapolis called “The Fall of the Creative Class.” A one-time Florida acolyte, Bures tells of how he became disenchanted with creative class theory via a bad experience living in Madison, Wisconsin, supposedly a creative hub. His direct attack (which is by no means the first of its ilk) scored a response from Florida, which of course just led to another broadside from Bures. In the meantime, despite some positive press, most of the reaction I’ve seen has ranged from catty to apoplectic. Next American City – ironically, the outlet that published Florida’s first defense piece, “Revenge of the Squelchers,” way back in 2004 – has run two different commentaries from Sean Andrew Chen that are mostly skeptical in tone. And then there’s this festival of bile from The Baffler’s Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which, while mostly sparing Florida by name, attacks the very idea of the arts as an economic engine with ferocity.

In the circles I travel in, it’s become as fashionable to pick on Richard Florida as the oft-derided hipsters with which his “creative class” is sometimes associated. In one sense you can’t blame them: this is a guy who gained an enormous amount of notoriety from scholarship with some obvious flaws. It’s hard to look at the attention his ideas commanded among the mayors and foundations of the country over the past decade, and the cushy lifestyle he now enjoys, and not feel a bit of righteous envy. I get it.

But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if Florida’s detractors have really read his books – like really read them, front to back. They often accuse him of saying things he didn’t say, or omitting things he talks about at length (like income inequality, which occupied much of a chapter in the original Rise of the Creative Class). Although Bures’s rebuttal to Florida draws more blood, the conceit of his original article seems to be that the author’s own disappointing experience in one “creative class” city and subsequent happiness in another “creative class” city are somehow proof that creative class theory is wrong. Bures also seems to imply, via his invoking of Mel Gray’s study on arts spending in 15 cities, that Florida is explicitly an advocate for public funding of the arts, which he’s never really been (as much as arts advocates have liked to pretend he is).

My view has been that Florida is on to something from a qualitative standpoint, but that his particular way of describing it in research terms – the “3T’s” of Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, as measured at the metropolitan level rather than that of individual neighborhoods – is a limited instrument that prevents him from getting the robust results he’s looking for. As much shadenfreude as we might get from seeing a giant fall back to earth, it’s problematic when the methodological quirks of Florida’s particular approach are used to damn the entire concept of the arts as an economic driver, as we see in Frank’s article. Throughout, Frank seems to spend most of his time arguing against a straw man, the notion that people who are interested in creative class theory or creative placemaking or the economic development potential of the arts believe that these things  are the singular answer to turning around the economy in any community. Frank writes of the “millions” spent on promoting vibrancy in our nation’s cities and suggests that they would be better spent on things like “bridges, railroads, highways,” regulating the financial system, or, my favorite, universal health care. I’m sorry, but I seem to have missed the press release that announced state and local governments were spending more on street festivals and public art than re-routing the interstate or Medicaid. When the “millions” spent on making our cities a little more interesting, attractive, and fun approaches anything like the trillions spent on these other things, we can talk about misallocation of resources, mmkay?

I don’t think many people would argue, not even Richard Florida, that the arts are some kind of silver bullet that can solve all of a community’s problems. But that’s a very different thing than saying that the arts do have the potential to add value economically to communities, that they do form part of the answer to revitalization and shouldn’t be ignored or sidelined like they usually are. I’m still waiting for the conversation to go where it needs to go but hasn’t yet: how can the arts be the irreplaceable catalyst in certain, specific situations in certain kinds of cities? The broad brush with which we insist on painting the picture keeps on covering over its most important details.

(Update: Richard Layman has more.)

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9 Comments

  1. Victoria
    Posted July 17th, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you Ian for added much needed perspective to this “conversation.”

  2. Courtney
    Posted July 17th, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    In Florida’s original work, he uses a very broad definition of “creative careers.” Florida cites examples of artists’ impact in community development, however he also includes hair stylists, and designers of any kind in his description of creative professionals/artists. This can be seen particular when he argues that this generation is more focused on jobs (careers) where they have a chance to be more creative and have more of an impact within their company. The individual touch rather than mass production. Discussions about where public funding is going and it’s relationship to the arts seems a nonsequitur.

  3. Posted July 19th, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read Frank’s work yet, but I must admit to sharing skepticism about the arts’ (and especially the American for the Arts’) framing of the arts as an economic driver. The arguments seem to rest on a combination of “multipliers” that could as easily be applied to virtually any other business or entertainment that calls people out of the house. If I go to, say, a roller derby match, I also am likely to eat in a restaurant and have to arrange child care, so it’s not a great argument specifically for the arts. When I have heard people talk about the arts in this context, as I did at a recent conference, it was used as a barely disguised class appeal: the arts draw educated, upscale people and those are the people we want, isn’t it, not those lower class, uneducated folks that make us uncomfortable.

    Furthermore, I have real problems with the NEA’s and Markusen’s term “creative placemaking” itself. Economic development is not “placemaking,” it is, at best, bank account making or gentrification. Most arts being promoted have nothing to do with place at all — the arts that are being offered in such places aren’t rooted in place, don’t reflect that particular place, and don’t seek to define or differentiate that place from any others. It is the appropriation of a word that ought to have a much different meaning and using it to give a flavor of something that is much more wholesome than the crass commercialism at its root.

    Finally, as an academic who has had to immerse himself in the “assessment” movement, I know that when you test for learning, you focus on the things that are central to the goals and objectives of a particular course. Economic development is not central to the purpose of the arts — it is at best a tangential side-effect. My course on theatre history may develop a greater ability to articulate opinions in discussion but it certainly isn’t the focus of the course. Similarly, the arts are not an arm of the restaurant-and-childcare industry, and I’m not certain why we are justifying our work in such a way.

  4. Posted July 22nd, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    HI Ian:

    Thanks for this discussion. I very recently re-read the original text of Rise of the Creative Class along with excerpts from the new version, which does not seem to have changed much in its essential theories or character. I have several concerns about Florida’s theory, in addition to those you post here. When used as a guide for policy-making, as it has been almost since publication, Rise of the Creative Class is really about incentivizing in-migration TO cities rather than building capacity IN cities. Thus, using it as a foundational idea for creative placemaking is quite paradoxical (it is referenced by Rocco Landesman and others in the press releases about the ArtPlace initiative). Although the new edition pays a bit more attention to the larger “service class” than did the original, the very breakdown of creative class and service class reifies the socio-economic class distinctions that divide the country. Finally, Florida’s theory IS human capital theory. His insistence that it is not seems to me to be only self-serving.

    As to the relationship between creative class and “vibrancy” or “creative placemaking,” look for a longer dissection of that issue coming soon, either on creativeinfrastructure.org or a more formal publication outlet.

    - Linda

  5. Posted July 28th, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I imagine a ongoing conversation by a group of farmers whose chickens have been stolen by the fox. The farmers stand around the whole in the fence discussing how it happened. Should they measure the hole in the fence to find out how big the fox was or maybe try to come up with indicators that suggest how many times the fox entered the hole or maybe it would be better to determine which day of the week was the better day for the fox to have used the hole? Meanwhile all the chickens are gone.

    Richard Florida’s mantra and measurability message came at an interesting time in the history of public support for the Arts. It was the nail in the coffin that represented actual support for those who produce the cultural value in society – the artists. The conservative right had managed to strip funding from those who produce the arts and award it to those organizations and agencies that present art to the public and Florida’s message of measuring the economic and social impact of the arts became the obsession of these new gatekeepers of culture. Now the public and the politicians had a new tool to control scary cultural production, if it was important enough to award public tax dollars to then those paying those dollars and those managing those dollars had the right to see the effects of those dollars spent. And our arts organizations and arts advocates fell in marching step to the new orders. Now all you seem to do is argue about how to best measure the hole that the fox went through.

    • Posted July 28th, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      The Rise of the Creative Class has no “message of measuring the economic and social impact of the arts.” The book is only tangentially about the arts, and Florida is certainly not some kind of evangelist for measurement in the way that you’re painting him to be here. You know the part up there where I wrote, “I sometimes wonder if Florida’s detractors have really read his books – like really read them, front to back?”

      • Posted July 29th, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Today it seems you can’t read a press release or blog post from a state or national art agency without seeing their facts and figures and pronouncements about how great the arts are for economies and how the arts create jobs. Here in Michigan we have the ‘Creative State Michigan Report’ that can tell you how many jobs have been created by the arts, how much the total salaries are, how many tourism dollars are spent in the state because of the arts, etc. It talks about the ” creative economy”, the “creative industry” and “arts related businesses”. It’s proud in it’s conclusion that now with their newly created data base they can” fully illustrate its impact in Michigan with standardized, reliable information.” It’s a study that concludes the arts, the “creative class” has a direct impact on the economic and social welfare of the state. If this overly broad data base isn’t based on the lingo and ideas of Florida then I’d love for you to tell me where it does comes from.

      • Posted July 29th, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        The clearest intellectual ancestors of the Creative State Michigan report are the economic impact studies of Americans for the Arts (not a coincidence at all, as ArtServe MI, which produced the report in question, is a part of AFTA’s State Arts Advocacy Network). AFTA began publishing economic impact studies in 1994, a full eight years before The Rise of the Creative Class was published. Naturally, Florida has had an influence on more recent conversations – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about him. But it’s important to make a distinction between rhetoric and reality here. People often mistakenly associate the “creative class” with artists exclusively, but Florida was making much more of an argument about creativity as required and applied in everyday life and how that relates to regional prosperity. Florida’s concept of the creative class, as commenter Courtney above points out, is exceptionally broad and includes almost all white-collar workers – investment bankers, salespeople, and schoolteachers along with artists, programmers, and scientists. The audience for his work has been much broader than the arts world, and while arts advocates have been quick to appropriate Florida’s ideas to argue for public funding of the arts, it’s not really fair to blame Florida himself for that.

        I have an entire section of my website devoted to easy to read summaries of the foundational research behind these kinds of conversations. I realize that you have a larger point about the appropriateness of economic development as a justification for arts funding, and I’m not saying it’s not valid, but these details and nuances matter, and it frustrates me to see you and others lumping them all together as if they’re the same thing. AFTA’s economic impact studies are very different from creative class theory which is very different from ArtPlace’s notion of “vibrancy” or Mark Stern’s and Susan Seifert’s explorations of the relationship between arts assets and civic engagement or real estate valuations. This was the whole point of my blog post.

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