Artistic activity is often viewed as a discretionary element in a regional economy, rather like icing on a cake of industry, finance and basic services. The economic impact of the arts has generally been gauged by totaling up the amounts that patrons spend on performances and restaurant meals, parking and shopping in districts around major theatres, symphony halls and galleries. The occupation “artist” conjures up dual images of a few star painters, composers and photographers who land the prestigious grants and the many aspiring actors, dancers and writers waiting tables to underwrite creative time in attic rooms.
In this study, we show that this is an impoverished view of the arts and its role in the regional economy. It treats the arts as a consequence of, even a parasite on, a successful business economy. We show, on the contrary, that artistic activity is a major and varied contributor to economic vitality. We suggest that the productivity of and earnings in a regional economy rise as the incidence of artists within its boundaries increases, because artists’ creativity and specialized skills enhance the design, production and marketing of products and services in other sectors. They also help firms recruit top-rate employees and generate income through direct exports of artistic work out of the region.
Using an occupational approach rather than a focus on major arts organizations and venues, we define artists broadly to include actors, directors, performance artists, dancers, choreographers, musicians, composers, authors, writers, painters, sculptors, and photographers. We showcase several artistic careers that are highly entrepreneurial — where the artist is not starving, working menial jobs or waiting for the next grant, commission or role but actively seeking diverse markets and venues for their work. Many artists directly “export” their work to customers, firms and patrons elsewhere, enabling them to live in the region, to contract work from other individuals and to generate work for and prompt innovation among suppliers. Artistic networks, often enhanced by new spaces for working and gathering, are helping to spread entrepreneurial ideas and practices both within and outside the region.
Artists, like firms, have locational preferences and gravitate towards certain regional economies. We show that some metropolitan areas in the US host larger contingents of artists than others of similar size. We proxy the significance of the artistic dividend by the incidence of artists in a regional workforce. We find the pre-eminence of New York and Los Angeles as artistic poles softening as artists spread out toward selective “second tier” cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Albuquerque and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Artistic specialization is not a function of rapid growth — fast-growing Atlanta and Dallas/Ft Worth have below-average concentrations of artists, as do slower-growing Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
This “artistic dividend” is a product of long term commitments by philanthropists, patrons and the public sector to regional arts organizations, arts education and individual artists. It is enhanced by entrepreneurial activity among artists and fostered by (and contributes to) high urban quality of life. Through extensive interviews with artists in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul (MN) a region with relatively high artistic presence, we show the importance of amenities, quality of life and an active and nurturing arts community in attracting and retaining artists. For the artists showcased, we document how they have built their careers, why they decided to live and work in the region, and the ways in which their careers have enhanced the success of other individuals and businesses in the regional economy.
Artistic activity as a significant contributor to the regional economy needs nurturing. In comparison to the very modest amounts they devote to the arts, state and local governments pour hundreds of millions of dollars into downtown revitalization, new plant attraction and even big box retail developments in the suburbs. Vis-à-vis the arts, large physical performing and visual arts spaces receive the lion’s share of public and patron support while the labor side of the equation is under-nourished. Our work suggests that artist-dedicated spaces such as older industrial buildings made into studios and new or renovated live/work spaces and occupation dedicated gathering venues such as the Open Book in Minneapolis deserve public and patron support. Patrons and arts foundations should consider unconventional grants to arts occupational groups to help their members position themselves in larger national and international marketplaces, enhancing the export orientation of the artistic sector. Similarly, channels of connection between regional businesses and the artistic community could be enhanced to facilitate contributions by artists to business product design, marketing and work environments. Finally, among artists themselves, we counsel more attention to and cooperation in entrepreneurial pursuits, including changes in attitude toward artistic careers.