Creating the creative economy

By Molly McKenna

Molly McKenna, photo by Arts Council staff

When Helena Fruscio graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2007 with a bachelor of fine arts degree – with a concentration in ceramics – she started a business that had nothing to do with glazed breakfast bowls. Berkshire Creative is an immensely successful organization, run primarily from Fruscio’s sunny Pittsfield, Mass., apartment, which seeks to strengthen Berkshire County’s creative industry – the business of nonprofit cultural organizations, designers, and marketers, as well as individual artists – by acting as the go-to information center for creative businesses in the region.

Berkshire Creative has a variety of useful information readily available for creative workers, both on its website (updated daily), or at events it holds throughout the county. The organization keeps an extensive list of current job and internship opportunities in the creative industry and provides manageable information about how other organizations such as the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s regional office and the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce can be of use to creative workers. But perhaps the most interesting opportunity Berkshire Creative provides is an annual contest, the Creative Challenge, during which a regional business looking for a new idea or product design opens its doors to the local community, and, after reviewing submissions from area artists, chooses a winner and pays him or her fair market value for the work.

The first Creative Challenge was with Interprint, a floor-tile printing business, which selected an augmented Photoshop print of popcorn, designed by a local artist, to be printed as possible floor tiling for movie theaters around the county. The contest has had four successive runs, each successfully connecting a local creative worker with a bigger business, which hadn’t, until then, thought to look on its doorstep for the design of its next big product.

When I interviewed Fruscio a month ago about Berkshire Creative, what I was interested in was not so much the success of her work, but the narrative behind that success, and that narrative just happens to be the same narrative that economists and politicians have written on napkins: Job growth. But how?

During the Great Depression there was the Works Progress Administration, and currently we have the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but what cities and towns suffer from now is not a lack of new buildings, roads, and bridges, but an overabundance of them. The buildings especially, old factories that are deteriorating, abandoned, or used as dreary extra office space for businesses that have nothing to do with the neighborhoods surrounding them. Fifty years ago, these buildings were the center of American business, when one-third of U.S. workers were employed in manufacturing. Now, that fraction is closer to one-tenth. Why?

The industrial revolution was characterized by a harsh division between manual and mental labor, a division which was directly associated with class. The well educated could run the businesses, everything else was left to the rest. Now, the “rest” mostly live in Asia, selling back to us the products a select few design. Our “rest” are struggling to find jobs in an economy that is information-based, not product-based, while Internet companies blossom and factories close. If those factories do happen to be converted into restaurants, galleries, bookstores, or museums – a solution that is becoming more and more popular in post-industrial towns and cities – often enough a planned cultural area will spring up around them, driving up real estate prices and driving out current residents who move to a different neighborhood that hasn’t been converted yet.

It is quite clear that our economy, as it exists right now, has failed us. Or rather, that we have left it behind but forgot to tell everyone. And while we have been charging ahead into the technological revolution, many have been looking in dusty closets for something that was thrown out long ago. This is not a bad thing. It is only when we don’t prepare people for such change that any real harm is done. Education has become an economic problem, not just a social one, and while people are starting to go back to school, it is much more expensive than it should be, even as many jobs require specialized knowledge.

Much of this may seem like a gloomy picture. It is a picture that has been developing for more than 30 years. What is not so gloomy is that, as it is becoming clear, people are recognizing it, and people are responding. Local movements for local change are more widespread than ever, thanks largely to networking made possible by the Internet. In New Haven I have met countless people with inspiring visions of social change. The reason I found Fruscio so interesting is that she has taken “arts and culture,” which so many people see as an extra, as a luxury of a healthy society, and turned it into an essential piece of the economy. How?

By recognizing that America can still make things. That America still does make things, not in the mass-produced way that it used to, but rather in smaller (and here I am talking about less than 1,000 employees), more imaginative ways. By recognizing that half of creating something is getting the word out about it, getting people interested in it, and by recognizing that marketing, in and of itself, is creative work. Creative economy is not just about individuals making a living from their artwork, novels, galleries, music, landscape designs, etc. It is also about the idea that in the 21st century, mind is meeting matter, ideas are valued above products, design above production. Creativity, imagination, ingenuity, entrepreneurship. But social and economic systems haven’t caught up.

Berkshire Creative is fairly unique in its design, and focuses, necessarily so for its size, on only one county. Taking its example, we can acknowledge that creative thinking is necessary to economic success and that making the connection between information and material is a creative process. We can acknowledge that the web designer relies completely on the installer of the fiber-optic cable and that to know how to install fiber-optic cable you need have a certain degree of knowledge. And we can acknowledge that everyone living in this country should be able to acquire that knowledge without breaking their backs working to pay for it. If we can understand these things, maybe we can change the way we think of what a job is, what an industry is, and how to connect people within those industries. It starts with the arts (because artists are easier to convince), but it can’t stop there. Creative economy is the economy of ideas, and no one does it alone. This recession has called us to attention, and we need to come together, talk to one another, and move forward together, with everyone on board, with not just new jobs, but new kinds of jobs, creative jobs, that is. It has taken us a long time to get here, but we have arrived, and we can’t look back. It starts small, it starts local, but it starts somewhere. It has started in Berkshire County, and it has started here, but there is more, always. So keep paying attention, keep thinking, keep sharing, keep talking, and create.

Visit the Arts Council’s new Creative Directory at newhavenarts.org.

Molly McKenna is a sophomore at Bennington College where she is focusing on conflict resolution through the arts. Molly recently completed an internship at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. The organization would like to express its gratitude for all she accomplished. This is her opinion.

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