Not a Joke Anymore: Art & Economic Development


Back when it was in grad school, Interboro worked on a redevelopment strategy for a small, Midwestern city (Waterloo, IA) that had experienced increasing disinvestment, shrinkage, and “brain drain.” Interboro’s clients – a small group of earnest, upstanding young city council members – had some vague sense that the arts were vital to their future, but they weren’t sure exactly how (this was in 2000, a year before The Rise of the Creative Class came out). They were curious about a gay couple that had moved into a “renovated loft,” and admittedly inspired by a “funky” new club / gallery that had opened downtown, and they wondered what they might do to attract more of the same.

Interboro was itself inspired by the clients’ enthusiasm, but a bit disturbed by what was implied, namely, that economic development was somehow synonymous with alternative lifestyles and the arts. It’s a benign enough point to say that the places where art thrives are also places that are thriving economically, but it’s less benign to say that places that are thriving economically are thriving economically because they are the places where art thrives (since it might be the case that artists are attracted to places that are already thriving economically). And so to assume that the arts are somehow engines of economic development seems pernicious, to say the least.

And besides, how in the world would you go about attracting more of the same? So the city council thinks it’d be swell for the downtown to be swarming with gays and artists – how do you get them there? What sorts of mechanisms are in place to attract them? Obviously, there’s a long history of cities moving mountains to attract job-providing businesses. But should a city be allowed (let alone encouraged) to attract individuals who represent a certain lifestyle?

In 2000, these seemed like absurd questions to ask. Today, as most people know, they’re the sorts of questions that almost all aspiring small cities ask themselves seriously. What’s even more surprizing, however, are some of the answers these cities have come up with. In 2000, Interboro joked that Waterloo should institute a variation of the “fresh air fund,” whereby the city would pay people from, say, Williamsbug to move to Waterloo with the understanding that the Williamsburg kids would have to renovate a loft, start a gallery, and patronize the downtown coffee shop. Scanning Planetizen today, Interboro found a link to a story about a program in Tacoma, WA that pretty much does just that. The article (which is absurdly non-critical) states that:

Artists in the region choose Tacoma not only because of the abundance of cheap, vacant buildings but also because of a focused effort from the city. As part of long-range planning efforts, the city recognized that artists play a crucial role in creating a vibrant, 24-hour downtown and began to take steps to facilitate artists living and working there. The city aims to bridge the gap between Old and New Tacoma, encouraging the arts from both bottom-up and top-down.

How does Tacoma “encourage the arts from the top-down”? By paying artists to move there. The article talks about one guy who received $4,000 to move to Tacoma from Seattle. This is not a joke anymore.

To some, the “Creative Class” debate is pretty tired, but for a number of reasons, Interboro thinks that it’s a perfect time to assess the “arts as economic development” movement. Now that it has had a few years to get started, we could ask: How did it come so far so fast? What are its success stories? What are its failures? Who are the winners and losers?

We could aslo ask a number of questions that seem to have been overlooked. For example, how do artists feel about being used as the agents of gentrification? How do artists feel about being pawns in someone else’s vision of what a city should look like? What sorts of criteria do cities use for determining who is and who isn’t an artist?