Arts in the Economy: An outcome or a determinant?

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That I tend to view all arguments about "cultural" factors influencing economic development with the same sort of eye that I lend to "social capital" arguments (especially the egregiously awful book Bowling Alone) probably has something to do my being a born skeptic. On the other hand, I've yet to see a decent argument about the mechanics behind the idea that cultural inputs drive economic growth.

From the loose definitions of culture to the lack of resolving the bi-directional issue (that cultural outlets are more numerous in economically developed areas looks to me like it's as much of sign that growth in disposable income drive an interest in the arts as much as it is that a culturally diverse city attracts a broad range of people and talents, and a host of other arguments and counter arguments) the work leaves me cold and confused. I just haven't seen much to say that there is much reason for a city that has to make tough economic choices to invest in the arts. That said, however, I don't think most city managers agree with me, especially not those in Cleveland:

A new Cuyahoga County program that will disburse $375,000 in arts-related economic development grants is to go into effect Monday.

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Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones said an important part of the grants' value will be to "convince the public that tax dollars are well spent" on arts projects that fuel the economy.

The commissioner has set an awfully high goal, then. I'm more than willing to accept the value of art for its own sake, the utility people get out of seeing art, preserving art, etc. What I don't follow is that argument for cultural projects being some sort of collective good that fuels productivity (as would, say, more students graduation from highschool with the ability to read). What I've read of the field of cultural policy studies essentially relies on interpersonal comparisons of utility to make arguments about positive externalities; why it is good that artisits and yuppies comingle, or the value of having more playhouses, etc. Even the purely economic arguments about the effects of museums and the like tend to ignore the circularity inherent in their subsidization arguments. If museums are subsidized so that they're not too expensive to enjoy, then you will get a greater number of people attending that don't/can't put more than the price of admission (a "donation") into the surrounding economic environment.

The crux of the issue for me is this: if you want to show that arts investment is worthwhile, I need to see reasons for the "arts" to be the important part of that phrase. Why choose arts over better access for the small businessman looking to open a coffee shop, a bike repair place, or just about any of the myriad of economic activities that one could undertake apart from the "arts"? And it can't be an argument based on there being too many of the other types of things keeping the arts under-represented. If your town has enough people spending enough money to keep 12 Starbucks open, then there aren't "too many." Showing that there are unrealized gains to be had in the "art" part of "arts investment", that demand is going largely unmet and providing incentives to correct that benefits the taxpayer in a way other than assuming I'm better off when there is more sculpture in the world than yesterday -- that would convice me that there are "too few" arts.

But just to show I'm not one to criticise and ignore, or that I simply am writing it off as "can't be done", there's a conference I highly recommend if you're at all interested in the topic, and in Chicago. (Which one is the more limiting condition, I'll leave up to you to decide. ...what? No rim-shot for that one?)

3 Comments

What about big prestigious buildings (like in Bilbao) that turn a town into a big tourist attraction? - this would seem to provide more bang for the buck than an equivalent amount of investment in less flashy infrastructure.

Good point.

My reaction is that while such buildings do take on an attraction value all their own, there is, in some sense, and endogeneity issue with such projects. Chicago is building a huge structure called Millenium Park designed to be a space for art shows, music, etc. Which is all well and good, but Chicago couldn't have afforded such a thing without being a fairly prosperous city in its own right with a large group of people who have the money and interest to devote to the arts. The arts in the Windy City aren't as vibrant as, say, NYC, but they are pretty extensive. Projects on the order of "tourist attraction" are not only incredibly expensive, but are also dependent on a certain level of either arts development or other factors that would draw people to the town. The Bilbao Guggenheim wouldn't have been built in Ames, Iowa, in other words. The returns to such a project for Chicago, Paris, NYC, Bilbao, Singapore, etc, are supported by complimentary experiences (other attractions, natural beauty, etc). Without them, development of grand projects would be far less likely to occur.

At the level of community development such as Cleveland is taking on, I'm not sure I see the value in supporting the arts in specific. A more general assistance program to help build business might allow for the potential entrepreneurs to respond more directly to demand.

Haven't you read that asinine "Rise of the Creative Class" book? I bet that's how they justified this "investment" in arts-related "economic development". I sure don't want to see my tax dollars going towards this type of boondoggle - but I'm also against tax dollars subsidizing low culture, specifically sports stadiums.

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This page contains a single entry by published on May 15, 2004 7:19 PM.

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