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‘The Price of Everything’ – a guest post by Frank Bures

Editor’s note: Frank Bures penned a provocative first-person essay for the newly launched Thirty Two magazine, “The Fall of the Creative Class,” which has sparked much conversation, here and across the country, in recent weeks. Here, Bures offers a guest post for mnartists.org, on the long-term perils of monetizing the arts, weighing the shift in […]

Editor’s note: Frank Bures penned a provocative first-person essay for the newly launched Thirty Two magazine, “The Fall of the Creative Class,” which has sparked much conversation, here and across the country, in recent weeks. Here, Bures offers a guest post for mnartists.org, on the long-term perils of monetizing the arts, weighing the shift in recent years toward market-based cultural initiatives, which reframe artists and their work in terms of economic stimulus.

A few weeks ago, I published a story in the new Twin Cities culture and current affairs magazine, Thirty Two, called “The Fall of the Creative Class,” about the giant holes, as I saw them, in Richard Florida’s theory of economic growth.

Within a few weeks, the piece had nearly 50,000 page views: It burned through the social networks and got picked up by everyone from the Daily Beast to Real Clear Politics to Salon. (Florida has since reacted; and my response is here.)  But as the piece found more readers, one comment I began to hear again and again was that the story was a little “depressing.”

At first, this reaction caught me off guard, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But after some reflection, I think I understand better. I suspect it has to do with a shift in our attitude toward art and its place in our lives over the last decade or so — namely, the idea that if something is worth doing, it should also make money. Intrinsic value – in virtually every sphere– has given way to the metrics of financial return. Or as political philosopher (and Minneapolis native) Michael Sandel notes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, “We have drifted from having a market economy, to being a market society.”

Obviously, I’m all for making a living, but this shift is something about which I’ve felt a growing unease, and it is part of the problem I have with Florida’s Creative Class theory. The fact that Florida launched his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class into this new market society was one of the primary reasons his theory that a vibrant cultural scene was the key to economic growth became so popular.  We were all happy to be told that the things we loved also happened to be profitable.

This is the assumption that underlies a current movement based on Florida’s theory, known as “creative placemaking,” which holds that public art and creatively “activated” spaces can help jumpstart a local economy.  Perhaps they can, perhaps they can’t.  Either way, I sense a trap. I’m afraid there’s a category mistake here: The arts were never intended to be good business, as any artist who goes into it can tell you.

Nonetheless, the belief that one worthwhile thing (art) leads inevitably to another (money) has given birth to projects like the Knight Creative Communities Initiative (KCCI), for which Florida’s Creative Class Group was paid $585,000 to help turn three cities (Duluth, Tallahassee, and Charlotte) into “creative magnets.”  This goal was to be accomplished by way of a two-day seminar, at which 30 or so volunteer “catalysts” from each city were to form “action teams,” that would complete a set of unfunded projects: “ArtWorks” in Duluth, a film festival in Tallahassee, and a “creativity festival” in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as other Florida favorites like bike paths, recycling programs, and co-working centers. The final report showed less than resounding success:  Local organizers and “catalysts” complained about having to pay for Creative Class Group consultants’ limousines and about their lack of local knowledge and the poor quality of their data, remarking that the consultants were “more interested in the gospel of Richard Florida,”  than the “unique issues and needs” of the cities.

Most importantly, though, these projects resulted in little or no economic impact in the designated “creative magnet” communities.  In the end, the report concluded that “KCCI was built on an innovative theory of economic development. However, it lacked a clear set of connections between its specific projects and the broader changes it sought to achieve. In addition, the initiative did not articulate its rationale about the ways in which change could or would occur. In other words, KCCI knew what its destination was but did not have a roadmap for getting there.”

Frank Bures (photo courtesy of the author)

How does art become money?  How do vibrant creative spaces become vibrant economic ones?  The Creative Class Group doesn’t seem to know.  I don’t know.  No one knows, yet everyone seems to assume that one must lead to the other. Thomas Frank, writing in the Baffler, calls this mindset a “vibrancy Ponzi scheme” which has set off a “vibrancy arms race,” pitting cities like Akron and Indianapolis against each other.  “Vibrancy theory reveres the artist, but it also insults those who would take artistic production seriously,” he writes, adding that, “vibrancy theory treats the artist as a sort of glorified social worker, whose role is to please children and stimulate businessmen and somehow support the community.”

But more to the point, Frank contrasts the public art projects of ’30s, like the Federal Writers Project, with the Floridian mindset of today:  “[N]o one expected those artists to pull us out of the Depression by some occult process of entrepreneurship-kindling. Instead, government supported them mainly because they were unemployed. In other words, government then did precisely the opposite of what government does today: In the thirties, we protected artists from the market while today we expose them to it, imagining them as the stokers on the hurtling job-creation locomotive.”

My fear is this:  Once people realize that art may not be stoking a secret gravy train, they will simply want to get off it. If creative placemaking schemes don’t pan out, the false hope they engendered might do more damage to arts funding in the long run, because they will have shifted the focus away from our most compelling reason for support of the arts. We should fund art because it makes the space around us the kind of place we want to live.

Let me be clear: I am 100% in favor of public art and making creative places, like the cultural corridor planned for Hennepin Avenue, or the $750,000 Irrigate Arts plan to do the same in the heart of St. Paul. But doing those things as some sort of investment strategy may ultimately backfire. It’s just not why humans have ever made art, and it shouldn’t be why we make it now. I’ll breathe more easily when we can return to the idea that such things need to be created, simply because they should be brought into the world. I will be glad when we can stop cheapening art by expecting to monetize its practice. And I will be happier when we can go back to loving (and funding) art because it adds value to our lives, not just our livelihoods.

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About the author: Frank Bures is a writer whose stories have appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Outside, Bicycling, Wired and have been included in the Best American Travel Writing 2004 and Best American Travel Writing 2009.  He is a contributing editor at World Hum and Poets & Writers, speaks a few languages and has spent time in a few countries. He currently lives in Minneapolis.

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Read Frank Bures’ story for Thirty Two magazine: “The Fall of the Creative Class”

Read Richard Florida’s response to the piece on his blog, The Atlantic Cities: “What Critics Get Wrong About the Creative Class and Economic Development”

And finally, Bures’ rejoinder: “Still Falling: On Chickens and Eggs, Cause and Effect and the Real Problem with the Creative Class”