Beth Siegel tries to turn perception of the arts in economic development on its head.
Rather than seeing “the arts” — museums, theaters, performance venues — as attractions that simply draw tourists to a community, she wants them viewed as contributors to a region’s economic might.
In New England, the “creative economy,” as Siegel likes to call it, is responsible for nearly 250,000 jobs — more than the vaunted software sector. In western Massachusetts’ Berkshire County, it represents close to 10 percent of total employment.
But the “creative economy” is more than just “the arts.” Yes, it’s all those painters, playwrights and musicians, but also incorporates architects and interior designers, computer gamers and caterers, ornamental manufacturers and landscapers.
Siegel, president of Mt. Auburn Associates in Boston, uses this definition of the “creative economy”: “The enterprises and people involved in the production and distribution of goods and services in which the aesthetics, intellectual and emotional engagement of the consumer gives the product value in the marketplace.”
Highfalutin? Maybe. But think of it in terms of New York City’s fashion industry and how that sector helps define the metro and contributes to its economy.
Siegel came to Proctors in Schenectady one recent morning to talk about how her firm helps areas identify and nurture creative economies.
She pointed out that creative economies can offer “significant” career options — “a lot of middle-skill jobs” — such as sound engineers, lighting technicians, curators and illustrators.
What they produce can be used close to home or “exported” across the country or the globe. “The hardest argument I have to make to economic development folks” is that these products are “one major export … that’s not being taken seriously,” Siegel said.
And while the arts traditionally have been seen as contributing to an area’s quality of life, clusters of “creatives” also can attract entrepreneurs and be a talent-retention tool, Siegel said.
She cautioned, though, that a creative economy was “not the next silver bullet” to a robust arts sector. Rather, it should complement other economic development strategies.
Regions interested in developing their creative economies should map their “creative assets” in detail, Siegel said. It’s a process that should involve both the arts and business communities; it also should “be inclusive” of ethnic and racial groups.
She advised moving from “strategic planning” to “strategic doing” quickly: “Don’t just study; make it happen.”
Siegel’s visit was hosted by Proctors CEO Philip Morris, who, along with WMHT Educational Telecommunications CEO Robert Altman and Ellen Sax of KeyBank, a major arts sponsor, hold continuing discussions on the state of the arts in the Capital Region.
Morris said they had heard of Mt. Auburn’s work — the firm has helped form strategic arts and economic development plans for Berkshire County, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and others — and wanted to learn more.
Hiring the firm to work here is a possibility.
Morris described a two-layer study approach that might take a year to complete. One would involve looking at data and talking to the area’s “creatives” to gauge economic impact. The other would be “a larger series of conversations” with business and political leaders on “would there be a strategic vision to grow this region?”
He thought it might be several months before a decision was made about engaging Siegel, but said he was leaning toward such a study.
“I don’t know how we don’t do this,” Morris told me this week.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]