Imagination Is a City’s Most Vital Resource

If You Want to Know the Health of a City, Count the Permits It Issues for Concerts, Street Fairs, and Festivals

In hard economic times, cities need to decide what industries are essential, and what programs and services can be cut down to save resources. The arts are perennial contenders for the chopping block, including what can more broadly be referred to as the “creative industries”—fields such as film, fashion, music, and publishing. As recent slashes to the budgets of everything from the National Endowment of the Arts to neighborhood school music programs have shown, the value of work based largely on imagination isn’t always clear.

But many experts, from artists to economists, argue that attempts to limit the arts are shortsighted. Sustaining a robust class of innovators and creative-types, they contend, is essential for the health of a city—both its character and economy.

So what does it take to keep the arts alive in a city? In advance of the Zócalo event sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, “Is L.A. Really the Creative Capital of the World?”, we asked people who study and support the creative industries: What should a city’s public and private sector do to nurture its creative economy?

Steven Tepper

Let artists innovate

Over the last 10 years, I have written and thought quite a bit about the conditions that foster creativity—the types of places that encourage citizens, artists, and entrepreneurs to be restless innovators. Legendary urban scholar Jane Jacobs talks about the importance of vital street life and lively public spaces. A city’s creative spirit is alive and well when its citizens leave the comfort of their homes to mix with strangers. If you want to know whether a city is creative, go down to city hall and count the number of permits issued each year for public gatherings, festivals, street fairs, and concerts.

Others argue that creative cities must attract and retain artists and creative workers. Artists take risks; they revitalize neighborhoods; they start businesses; and they apply their creative talents to our schools, our nonprofits, our hospitals, and our government. And they create open, tolerant, and energetic environments that attract other creative workers in technology, energy, media, health, and education. A Wall Street Journal survey found that 75 percent of recent college graduates planned to move to a city they liked and then find a job, rather than moving to a city because of a job. Artists create the types of places these young graduates want to live in.

Finally, a creative city is one that deploys its most imaginative citizens—artists and designers—to help solve its most complicated problems. Over the past decade, more than $50 million has been spent in the U.S. by foundations and government entities for “creative placemaking,” where artists and designers team up with community planners, developers, public safety and transportation experts, and educators to spark vitality and create economically and environmentally sustainable and resilient communities. Artists and designers ask the “what if” questions that can fundamentally alter how we see an issue and where we look for solutions. A creative city is one where we invite artists to help expand our civic and policy imaginations.

Steven J. Tepper is the dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Prior to ASU, Tepper was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University, where he was a chief architect of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, a national think tank for cultural policy and creativity.

Jonathan Bowles

Support arts organizations and local artists

The healthiest creative economies usually owe their success not to gilded performance halls or government tax credits, but to large and sustainable clusters of artists, musicians, dancers, designers, writers, and other creative professionals. Artists help make their communities more dynamic and interesting, spawn creative amenities (from galleries to craft fairs), and often serve as magnets for people from other places who want to live and work near creative people.

Cities that want to nurture their creative economies should develop policies that attract and retain artists. An important first step is to provide consistent operating support to a range of different nonprofit arts organizations, especially small and mid-sized groups, many of which provide opportunities for local artists to perform or display their work. At a time when funding from the National Endowment for the Arts is on the decline, city arts agencies should bolster their support.

Public and private sector leaders can also help working artists and arts organizations overcome real estate challenges. Property owners can donate their vacant spaces to arts intermediaries who create temporary “pop-up” homes for artists’ studios, galleries, rehearsal spaces, and performance venues. City government can even seed nonprofits with missions to develop affordable work spaces for artists, as New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs did in 2011 with Spaceworks. And policymakers can develop zoning tools and incentives that keep older commercial buildings from being converted into condos or hotels. It is these older spaces that often act as affordable incubation spaces for artists, nonprofits, and design firms.

Backing public art projects, helping to establish new arts festivals, and promoting local artists can also help lay the groundwork for self-sustaining creative clusters.

Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, an independent think tank based in New York City that has published a number of studies about New York’s creative sector.

Sara Horowitz

Protect freelancers

No city has won the award for “Best Freelancer City,” but Los Angeles is a top contender. It’s a title worth grabbing—considering that one in three Americans is doing some type of freelance work, according to a study commissioned by Freelancers Union and Upwork (a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggests that number actually may be closer to 40 percent of Americans). And with annual earnings of over $715 billion—more than the value of Facebook, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Starbucks, and McDonald’s combined—freelancers bring a lot of spending dollars to a welcoming city.

Why is L.A. way ahead of the game? Because the entertainment industry runs on networks and projects better than anyone—and networks and projects are what make successful freelancers. Independent workers from various creative industries, including film editing, writing, directing, and set and costume design, are connected from movie to movie. The idea of working gig-to-gig comes naturally to them. And unlike freelancers in many cities, they aren’t deprived of the protections traditionally reserved for full-time workers with benefits. This is a well-unionized workforce. Eligible film crews receive benefits through organizations such as the Writers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America.

The entertainment industry already works much the way the future workforce will. And L.A. embraces the creativity that these workers bring to the area and culture. In fact, the industry greatly defines the city in which it thrives. That established system positions L.A. ahead of many other cities.

Now it’s time for other American cities to catch up. The issues faced by this sizable and growing freelance workforce—episodic income, double taxation, no benefits, no safety net—can only truly be solved by changes in policy. The city that understands and embraces these freelancers could become the first freelance capital.

Sara Horowitz is the founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, a national labor group that represents freelancers, including selling health insurance and other products.

Lorne M. Buchman

Enable collaboration

The creative economy, bottom line, depends on a creative workforce. As president of a degree-granting art and design college that also provides public programs for children, teens, and adults of all ages, I am deeply invested in educating that workforce, at every stage of its development.

For a city—any city—to remain competitive in a global marketplace, public and private sector leaders must embrace imagination as one of its most vital and renewable resources. Indeed, creative imagination has long been the differentiator in civilizations of great enterprise, innovation in business, and technological advancement. Higher education, supported in part through partnerships with private industry, public agencies, and philanthropic organizations, has a critical role to play in preparing creative innovators and entrepreneurs, the visionary but balanced risk-takers who help enable society’s giant leaps forward.

Even while still in school, our own students at Art Center have an extraordinary track record of collaborating with entities large and small to tackle pressing issues ranging from developing more fuel-efficient transportation and ecologically sustainable packaging, to improving pediatric health care, preventing youth gun violence, and enhancing earthquake readiness. Whether the goal is social impact or the invention of new products and experiences, there is no challenge that cannot benefit from creative cross-sector and transdisciplinary collaboration.

“Prepared for anything” is how one young graduate confidently encapsulated her Art Center experience as she discussed her unexpected career path, and the phrase isn’t a bad motto for all of us as we come together to re-envision Los Angeles as the creative capital of a constantly changing world that demands the kind of skilled, flexible, and imaginative workforce for which this city has always been both a magnet and an incubator. To nurture our creative economy is to nurture those individuals in every way possible.

Lorne M. Buchman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Art Center College of Design. He currently serves on the boards of the Brentwood School, University of Haifa, and The Jewish Community Foundation, Los Angeles.