Commodifying Culture

Arts organizations are increasingly touted as community moneymakers--leading society down a dangerous path

It's not enough that the arts are, in some intangible way, good for us. The arts, according to the latest trendy argument, will create jobs, bolster the city budget, keep kids in school and restore a national economy betrayed by failed technology start-ups and ruinous wars.

In other words, arts advocates are giving up on the notion that culture is intrinsically valuable. It can be sold to reluctant arts funders only as a tool to improve America's and Tucson's finances.

This is a dangerous way to think about culture. It may increase funding over the next couple of fiscal years, but before long this argument will backfire, and cultural organizations will be worse off than before.

Arts funding around the country has been especially tight in the past 2 1/2 years, and city and state cultural councils have been going hungry along with the traditionally starving artists. But the arts community is sly and adaptable. Noting that the nation and many of the states are run by people who are anti-elitist--and often anti-intellectual--the arts community now justifies its continued funding by arguing that the arts are good for the economy. Thus, cultural development programs are as essential as economic development plans.

Only the fact that the argument is being sung by a swelling chorus of arts advocates is new; the concept itself isn't particularly fresh. For years, little studies have quietly suggested that Scottsdale-style clusters of art galleries are good for the tax base, and that the presence of a professional orchestra will give a quality-of-life advantage to a community trying to attract corporate expansion with the usual tax breaks and docile, low-paid workers.

But now the argument for the arts as an economic development tool is loud and sustained. And if that's the best case we can make, then within a few years, this song of praise will become the death rattle of American culture.

The concept of arts as economic engine was popularized by Richard Florida's 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida posits that some 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of "creative" individuals, people in law, computer science, the arts and many other professions who are paid to create technology, ideas or content.

"The wealth generated by the creative sector is astounding," Florida writes in the preface to the paperback edition of his book. "It accounts for nearly half all wage and salary income in the United States, $1.7 trillion dollars, as much as the manufacturing and service sectors combined." Creative regions like San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and Austin, according to Florida, generate more jobs, higher salaries, more innovations and more high-tech growth.

Florida stresses, "Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource. The ability to come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things is ultimately what raises productivity and thus living standards."

Obviously, not every member of the "creative class" is an artist, but the arts figure prominently in Florida's formulas for economic success. More recently, Florida has written that it's "obvious that arts, culture, and demographic diversity can help spur job creation and economic revitalization. Take the classic case of gentrification of inner city neighborhoods like New York's SoHo or San Francisco's SoMa: these neighborhoods initially lost blue-collar jobs as factories and warehouses moved out of outmoded facilities. Artists and culturally creative people then moved into the facilities, often reclaiming the properties from ruin by way of illegal conversions and their own sweat equity revitalization. Gays and singles came next. Only much later, once these initial, pioneering groups had increased real estate values, did families, professionals, yuppies, technology-based businesses, and retail shops follow."

Florida is hardly the only person making these claims now. At a June 4 cultural planning forum and workshop sponsored mainly by the Tucson Pima Arts Council, consultant Bill Bulick of Creative Planning Associates in Portland, Ore., emphasized "cultural economic development opportunities" such as cultural tourism, and touted arts-economic impact studies as important tools in developing a city's cultural plan.

Bulick also repeated points from the University of Pennsylvania's Social Impact of the Arts Project indicating that low-income neighborhoods with high levels of "cultural participation" were five times more likely to have very low levels of delinquency, and neighborhoods with higher cultural participation were more likely to experience an average decline in poverty without a loss of population.

TPAC itself has articulated its core values in similar terms. Near the top of its "2003 Issue Papers on Arts and Culture" is the statement, "Arts and culture are an important industry sector that have a significant impact on the economy." And later: "Promotion of Tucson's arts and culture will increase tourism and result in more and longer stays, and more spending in the local economy by visitors."

The document quotes a 2001 study conducted by the University of Arizona's Office of Economic Development that credits Tucson nonprofit arts organizations with generating, in 1999-2000, 3,554 jobs, $96.8 million annually in wages and sales and $5.8 million in total tax revenue--$2.9 million of that staying local. "The cultural community is one of Tucson's more significant industries," boasts TPAC. "Every dollar spent on the arts in Tucson generates $1.79 in tax revenues to the City. ... Providing for the needs of artists and art-related businesses is an investment with a return in tax revenues, property value increases and tax base expansion."

But what happens when local politicians and bureaucrats--and voters--buy into this, and then the local economy enters another of its periodic slumps? Betrayed, they will cry, "The arts didn't save us after all!" And so culture, being proved useless, will be defunded to levels even lower than the current embarrassing local norm of less than $2 per capita (which is way behind not only Seattle and Sacramento, but even Flagstaff).

The backfiring economic-development argument will kill arts funding faster than any right-wing crusade against obscenity in the art museum. This is not a profitable course to pursue.

Besides, even touting creativity as an engine for building social capital and civic life, noble as that sounds, merely commodifies culture. Reducing juvenile delinquency and boosting the tax base aren't reasons to value culture. Arts and culture are important because they define us as a species.

Most of us have at least a minimally developed aesthetic sense, even if it doesn't involve a love of fine art or classical music. Appreciating the lines of a vintage car, not being able to shake the latest Top 40 hit out of your head, getting your lower back tattooed or your belly button pierced--this is all evidence of, if not necessarily good taste, aesthetic judgment. It comes so naturally to us that we regard that rare person who admits to no interest in music--any kind of music--as a freak.

An aesthetic sense is part of what makes us human. It's as basic to our nature as language and opposable thumbs. We can't survive as a society without arts and culture any more than we could survive individually without our vital organs.

The message we need to send is not that a community without arts is a place with a slimmer wallet. A community without arts lacks a brain and heart.

Such a message may not open the government coffers, but is that really what the arts are about?

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