Marlboro College

About “Colleges as Catalysts for the Creative Class”

The Chronicle Review
The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 8, 2006

By Ellen McCulloch-Lovell

As cities and towns seek to revitalize their downtowns, they are looking to an emerging "creative sector" to help attract tourists, produce new products, and develop more jobs. The sector gained recognition in 2000, when the Creative Economy Initiative a collaboration among the New England Council, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and several other groups published a groundbreaking study of a regional creative economy on the basis of research by Mt. Auburn Associates, consultants in the field of economic development. The study identified the "creative cluster" work force, which includes artists; educators; people who work in creative enterprises, like art galleries and architecture and graphic-design firms; people who supply instruments, arts supplies, and other materials; technical workers, including lighting designers and sound engineers; and those in nonprofit cultural organizations.

The study also revealed that, by 1997, the creative cluster supported more than 245,000 jobs, or 3.5 percent of New England's total job base. The cluster was also growing faster than the rest of the economy. And it brought in significant revenues from outside the region - nearly $6.6-billion from cultural tourism alone.

An update of that report by the New England Foundation for the Arts illustrates that the creative sector's contributions have continued and are being made nationally: It found that while overall national employment rose 4.3 percent from 1997 to 2001, employment in the creative work force rose 10.9 percent. Even from 1999 to 2001, when the economy experienced a period of slow growth and national employment increased only 1.1 percent, the rate of employment in the creative sector grew 6.1 percent. Since that period, other studies, including work by Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002) and The Flight of the Creative Class (Collins, 2005), have highlighted the growing importance of the creative sector to our economy and society.

Colleges are an important part of the creative sector. We offer what is all too rare: employment for artists, scientists, and other innovative thinkers in various disciplines; spaces to develop new work; and environments that ideally allow students and faculty members to experiment, take risks, and learn from their failures. But are our institutions playing the role that they should in helping to build the creative economy?

Most higher-education institutions are already engaged in their communities for a variety of reasons: to be good neighbors; to attract students to a lively, safe environment; and to respond to employees, who make lives and raise children in the surrounding areas. Yet while we define our institutions as providing intellectual capital and even -- as sources of volunteerism and leadership -- social capital, we should think of them as sources of creative capital as well.

One well-known example of how higher education can contribute to the creative economy is the partnership that Williams College built with the nearby city of North Adams to create the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or Mass MoCA. The city, with a population of 18,000 people, had lost 4,000 jobs in 1985 when the Sprague Electric Company closed. The idea of creating a contemporary-arts center there took shape when Mayor John Barrett III responded to Thomas Krens, director of the Williams College Museum of Art, who was looking for a place to exhibit large works of art. The mayor later recalled, "I didn't know art, but I knew we needed a catalyst to change the local economy." Barrett along with Francis Oakley, then president of Williams, and other local leaders gained the first appropriation from the Massachusetts legislature to develop Mass MoCA in 1988.

Since the museum's inception, the occupancy rate of downtown stores has improved significantly, and the unemployment rate has decreased from 18 percent to 5.5 percent. Stephen C. Sheppard, an economist at Williams, recently led a research group that found that, in the first three years after the museum opened, 44 new businesses came to North Adams, adding 255 jobs to the city.

A number of other colleges are participating in a new "creative campus" movement, thinking seriously about ways to enhance and harness their creative assets to be better educators and to support the communities where they are based. But we in higher education must do much more. We have a responsibility to use our intellectual, social, and creative powers to study, document, and contribute to the creative economy through our talented students, faculty members, and administrators. And we must be aware of how we use our physical assets and direct our spending in our hometowns.

To contribute as we should to cultural economic development, colleges must strive to meet six challenges:

The Policy Challenge:

A variety of government policies -- economic, transportation, energy, taxation, and education -- are also commitments to ideas and resources that can stimulate or depress the creative cluster. Representatives of higher-education institutions should be at the table with local, state, and federal policy makers, calling on them to involve our most creative citizens in key decisions.

For example, if state or local agencies decide to knock down or redevelop old buildings in our towns or near our campuses, that could alter the physical character of our surroundings and threaten the availability of affordable housing for faculty members, students, and artists. Unless we are involved in such debates, we might miss an opportunity for preservation or for creative re-use, such as spaces for artists to live and work. What may at first appear to be a policy issue concerning preservation or development can also be a creative-economy issue.

The Research Challenge:

A few scholars are investigating the creative economy, how it operates, and how the work force flows among private business, the nonprofit sector, and individual entrepreneurship. For example, at the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, at Vanderbilt University, William Ivey, the center's director and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Steven J. Tepper, a sociologist and the associate director, are leading a team of social scientists as they examine creative enterprises and entrepreneurship in Nashville. They hope to discover how artists and musicians put together careers in that city. Are there enough opportunities for them? Who are the "creativity brokers" who connect people and help them find employment? The scholars' premise is that to build a culturally enterprising city, creative people have to have multiple venues and a diverse array of opportunities to be employed.

The research of Margaret Wyszomirski, director of the program in arts policy and administration at Ohio State University, has helped define the creative work force -- by mapping occupations across educational, commercial, and nonprofit organizations and people who are self-employed -- and its "implications for cultural development and planning."

Several years ago, Lawrence Rothfield and D. Carroll Joynes, founders of the Cultural Policy Center, at the University of Chicago, helped organize a conference that looked at how large public arts and culture projects influence the economic well-being of communities, and whether the development of cultural amenities attracts the creative class. The three-day meeting, which explored the benefits and pitfalls of using economic-impact analysis to measure those results, involved scholars from not only this country but also from Australia and Britain.

Such efforts are vital, but they are just a beginning. We need much more information about the creative economy and how it operates.

The Investment Challenge:

Budgets are policy instruments. The way that we allocate money expresses our goals and values. We should learn more about the various sources of financial support that we can tap to stimulate and sustain the creative economy, including the federal government (the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, the National Park Service), state tourism offices, state agriculture and economic-development offices, regional-development credit corporations, and banks. (The federal Community Reinvestment Act requires many banks to make investments in local communities.) We should also explore the resources of the National Endowment for the Arts, private foundations, and individual philanthropists.

Higher-education institutions should increase their own support, too. Colleges provide salaries and benefits for artists, scientists, and other faculty members who are idea generators. They serve as laboratories where new works are created and tested; they attract audiences; they commission pieces; they are major patrons of architecture and design. They also can raise money for creative initiatives that improve their surroundings and their relationships with their communities. For example, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using a matching grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to better integrate the artists at the center with the course offerings at the university.

The Education Challenge:

None of what we say will have any future if our young citizens are not taught the habits and skills of creativity -- if their imaginations are not stimulated. Evidence suggests that as teachers teach to the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the arts are being forced out of the classroom. According to a 2004 report by the Council for Basic Education, 25 percent of public-school principals surveyed said the instructional time reserved for the arts in their schools had decreased since the act was introduced.

Colleges should require teachers in training to study art and be prepared to present learning through the arts to elementary- and secondary-school students. All undergraduates, no matter what their potential career tracks, should experiment in the arts to better prepare themselves for creative thinking and teamwork -- as well as to become, upon graduation, more-informed participants and supporters of arts organizations.

The Imagination Challenge:

How do we use our creative citizens? Are we receptive to new ideas and approaches, especially when they threaten the status quo? As the poet Brewster Ghiselin reminded us, creativity often "at first appears eccentric." Will we invite artists, scientists, and other innovators to see the solutions that we don't see?

Our institutions need to uphold the freedom to risk and freedom to fail that are inherent in the creative process. We must defend expressions that seem odd and challenging, and be open to other ways of thinking. We must protect the college years as the time and place where students explore ideas and means of expression, providing them with faculty mentors, intelligent criticism, and the discipline to make the imagined become visible.

The Leadership Challenge:

We provide that all-important haven for the imagination and for inquiry, but we also have a responsibility to communicate across the government, business, civic, and nonprofit sectors to coordinate action within our broader communities.

For example, as Louisiana seeks revitalization after Hurricane Katrina, local leaders will guide efforts to preserve the state's unique cultural identity, based in large measure on the recommendations of a report by Mt. Auburn Associates, which was issued a month before the hurricane. The report urges Louisiana colleges to become more involved in the cultural economy of their state and provides many concrete examples of how they can do that: by creating internships with arts and cultural organizations, offering technical-training programs focused on arts-related industries, and working with other institutions to further promote cultural programs and resources.

Last fall Marlboro College, where I serve as president, and the nearby town of Brattleboro, Vt., held a symposium on the creative economy. Participants from local businesses, education, government, philanthropy, and cultural groups met to discuss the power and the potential of the creative sector for our own regional economy, and how we could encourage it to become an even greater force. As one outgrowth of that meeting, Marlboro's Graduate Center offered a 13-week business class designed specifically for local artists and artisans, working with Southeast Vermont Community Action, the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, and the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

Even in an artistically rich town like Brattleboro, citizens, private businesses, and nonprofit educational and cultural organizations must join hands. Not everyone understands the creative-economy concept or the research that supports it. Higher-education institutions can lead the creative economy by providing research about the creative sector and how it works; by analyzing policies and investments at local, state, and federal levels; by conducting audits of our own creative assets and using them to better advantage; and by forming partnerships with local cultural organizations. Our creative campuses are the keys to creative communities.

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College, in Marlboro, Vt. She was formerly president of the Center for Arts and Culture and served as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff to the first lady in the Clinton administration.

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