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Creative Class Agitprop

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They have been yelling it from the mountains for a few years now, that the Creative Class will dominate the New Economy. Richard Florida crafted this argument through demographics and statistics and it reached the ears of politicos and bureaucrats. Unfortunately the message was never received fully but spun into a host of bureaucracy driven projects and programs which lacked the very essence that Florida's research focused on, creative people.

The Creative Class has been distilled into the idea of artist communities and bohemians and extrapolated into projects and programs to make places seem or look arty, cool or green. Florida used the term Creative Class as a descriptor for highly educated professionals engaged in everything from scientific research to education to design. The Creative Class are not poor starving artists but healthy wage earners. Florida's research found that concentrations of the Creative Class are generally found where certain environmental and social factors exist. He postulates that Creatives like to be stimulated and engaged in their communities and are attracted to "bohemian" enclaves that do so. I would take it step further than Florida and label the Creative Class as Cultural Consumers who are interested in the production of the Uber Creatives, the Cultural Producers, i.e. artists, musicians, writers, etc.

Locally there is some understanding that supporting the arts is supporting the Uber Creatives and thus supporting the Creative Class. Much of the local support for the arts is by way of large institutions, i.e. museums, colleges. We have some great local arts institutions but let us not mistake them as cultural producers; they are points of interest but are not engaged in the production of local contemporary culture. Primarily these institutions are engaged in the presentation of what has happened or what is happening elsewhere. Their missions are not to provide support or opportunities for the local Uber Creatives, nor is that a role that they a required to play. We have other great institutions that have made an effort to plant creative communities, most noticeably on South Division, which is also great, but it still leaves our Uber Creatives working retail and food service jobs, not making a living from their creative output. There is a disconnect, there is a desire to have a vibrant local creative community but there does not seem to be an active understanding of how to support such a community.

To learn how to support the creative community we need to retrain ourselves and how we determine value. When price is the only factor privileged as value we make substantive concessions. Compare a mass produced ceramic bowl to a hand thrown one, they have different qualities and values. The prior is purely utilitarian in nature with the potential appliqué of a current style, which then can be tossed out when the next style comes into play. The later is a unique item, the only one of its kind to exist. The potter may make several that are similar but they are never exactly the same, its value is not regulated by a current style but by its nature as a unique object. If it becomes chipped you do not toss it out but preserve it. This relationship is inherent in most handmade objects and individual productions. These objects and outputs are the unique components that add to the production of a place where ideas are developed, explored, and exchanged. This is not the realm of the homogeny, mass produced, ill fitting, watered down, and dumbed down. This is a diverse ecosystem that provides the fertile ground for new things to take root and grow.

To support this ecosystem, we need to support some of its key members, the Uber Creatives, the cultural producers, the musicians and the writers and the artists. How do we as a community support the local Uber Creatives, those cultural producers that truly create our city’s culture? There are at least two routes to pursue, a personal path and a new institutional direction. On a personal level we each need to develop a new attitude, which means, you need to buy local art and music and verse and prose. It means changing your concept of value, that something produced by a local artist has more value than something mass produced and available at Target. It means that instead of paying $70 to see some national arena act that you go see three local shows and buy a CD from each band. In order for a vibrant bohemian community to survive it must be valued and supported. Instead of $50 a month on a cable bill, go buy a small piece of art every month. Instead of running out to buy that latest Mac product you invest that money into local creative products. It is a matter of changing our personal behaviors into ones that invest in our local creative community.

We have recently seen a massive investment in our art institutions, our beautiful new Grand Rapids Art Museum, the world-class Meijer Gardens, and the soon to be stunning UICA. All of these are great assets for our city, but are not the same thing as supporting the creative community of producers. Any or all of these institutions, and many other local institutions, could take on the challenge of creating new programs that directly support local cultural producers. At an institutional level projects could include an arts based business cooperative that would provide the space and professional assistance to Uber Creatives to develop and promote the business of art making. This could include a music cooperative with the equipment necessary for quality sound production and the networking interface to promote musicians throughout the country. This could include a local press that prints and distributes the work of our local writers. This could include a cooperative gallery that promotes emerging local artists on a consistent and ongoing basis. This could be an interface that assists a wide spectrum of creative producers, developing ways for them to interface with business and industry, ways to promote and sell their productions, and a way to educate the general public about the value of supporting these local producers.

All of these projects could be income generating for the institution and the artists involved. The key is stepping away from the current welfare mentality that exists around the arts into an entrepreneurial mindset. Instead of thinking of cultural producers as needy artists we need to start looking at them as producers of a product. How do we get that product to the market? How do we take a valuable local product and develop it into an export? We have hurdles to jump if we truly want a vibrant artistic community in Grand Rapids. Luckily these hurdles are primarily in our heads. The task at hand is to affect a cultural change in how we value the arts. Without supporting the creative community we are merely building artists ghettos, intellectual ghettos where some of the most valuable producers of our culture are forced to abandon their calling as makers or forced to live the myth of the art martyr, neither of which is a desirable outcome as both displaces the artist outside of our community, dejected. Where we need our artists is in the center of our community, a place where they can interact, create, build, improve, and enhance what surrounds them.

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I couldn't agree with you more Mark. It seems that we have turned the "creative class" into something else.... sort of like WalMart has done with our local mom and pop stores. I worry what will become of the artists that are "starving". I worry about the homelessness of the artist community who live for their work.

As we make a commitment to shop local, maybe it's time that we make a commitment to purchase local art as well. Support our artist and the greater creative community.

Thanks for the well written and thought provoking piece.

I'm not sure if there is a local community of collectors in Grand Rapids. I suspect the supply/demand curve would show that supply far exceeds market demand.

There are artists that I like, but I can't afford their work and/or have no means to properly display it (David Huang). I almost think the people most likely to see value in purchasing art, probably make it themselves. I'll admit it: I pick art to match my decor, so I wouldn't invest in a piece unless it truly represented a unique point of view (Hugo Claudin) or is beyond my level of skill to make myself (Kelly Allen).

Also we don't have any public art criticism in Grand Rapids, to help educate us about the value of collecting art and to advocate particular artists.


P.S. Uber Creatives need Regular Creatives. Unfortunately, most of the RCs I know are either starting out with salaries in the low $30s and massive student loan payments; going back to grad school; or moving because they can't find a job here.