Some thoughts on our “natural” cultural economy resources

11 May

I recently attended the World Cultural Economic Forum in New Orleans, which brought elected leaders together from all over the world who were focused on recognizing and investing in the cultural economy in their communities.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans is truly a leader in this arena, not only as Mayor of New Orleans, but also in his previous post as Lieutenant Governor of the State of Louisiana. There, he created the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation whose mission is to support the economic health and quality of life of the cultural workforce of the state.

Increasingly, political leaders are being drawn to the cultural economy for its potential to create jobs and economic activity, as well as the other social and community benefits that Mayor Landrieu mentioned in his speech. In these conversations, cultural workers and the activities they generate are often described as “assets,” which is undeniably true—they are valuable resources that yield tangible social and economic benefits. Yet, I want to suggest that these people and activities might be more accurately called the cultural sector’s “natural resources.” While this reframing may seem semantic, it suggests a subtle shift in thinking that I think is actually quite important to ensuring that cultural development is pursued in a sustainable way that benefits all of our communities’ inhabitants.  While the word “assets” has a connotation of property that can be used for whatever means, “natural resources” brings along with it the expectation of common benefit and a responsibility for careful stewardship to ensure its sustainability.

Just like the natural resources provided to us by the environment, creative people and the ideas, products and services that they produce seem to emerge from nowhere. It is a natural human urge to create and express culture. That is why arts and cultural activity can sometimes seem so magical in its transformation of neighborhoods, bubbling up from the grassroots to create beauty, connection, vitality and community where those were lacking before.  In fact, cultural activity often exists most vibrantly in some of our poorest and least economically developed areas (Bushwick in Brooklyn, Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles, the 9th Ward in New Orleans and so on), making it an even more tantalizing catalyst of growth and revitalization in the areas that need it most. And yet, while this cultural life is naturally occurring, just like our physical natural environment it needs responsible and careful attention in order to thrive and realize its full possibility.  Dr. Mark Stern, who is working on a Creative Asset Map of Philadelphia as part of an ArtPlace project, put it this way: “The arts are a critical force for promoting urban vibrancy, but without wise public policies, the vibrancy we see in many “natural” cultural districts today may disappear tomorrow. Thus, as we celebrate the positive aspects of creative placemaking, we need to treat these districts as vulnerable habitats that need wise stewardship if they are to flourish.” (Full disclosure: I led a panel at the convening that included Gary Steuer of the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy; who is partnering with Stern on the Creative Asset Map).

So, I hope that this effort for cities to recognize and invest in cultural activity continues to gain momentum. And I hope that, as it does, we all think about how we can steward our naturally occurring cultural resources in a way that ensures they will continue to thrive for a long time to come.

[This blog post is reposted from a response to a post on ArtsBlog)

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