A recent speech by Thomas Sevcik, managing director of Arthesia, (a think tank that consults large institutions on cultural positioning and strategies), caught our eye for its provocative conclusions, but also because he and his firm have been hired by Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce and Memphis Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to develop a brand for our community:
Because of these new powerful dynamics, the traditional beneficiaries of the world’s brain drains can no longer take their historical magnetism for granted. Attracting talent has become a major preoccupation for civic leaders and many of them have found inspiration in theories such as those of Richard Florida, whose popular books from a few years ago, The Rise of the Creative Class and Flight of the Creative Class, describe “creative capital” as essential to a city’s economic success in the new globalized world. As Florida wrote in Flight of the Creative Class, “Concentrations of creative talented people are particularly important for innovation…Ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when large numbers of innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact with one another, both in and out of the office.”
However, as is often the case, civic leaders tend to make use of popular theories in diluted or superficial forms. As Thomas Sevcik lamented, “Poor Richard Florida – his theory is very right but it was then misused for short-term thinking. I am not criticizing his claim for creative capital.” What Sevcik does criticize is the resulting phenomenon, what he describes as “The use of art and culture [and] the culture industry as a simple marketing tool, a superficial way of trying to gain momentum for a city…and it’s not really helping the cities.”
Sevcik posed several challenges to the accepted wisdom about the impact of the creative industries on cities. Along with questioning the Bilbao Effect, he targeted the value of the “creative industries” themselves. He posited that the creative industries are actually innovation-averse, citing several studies that argue that, due to chronic under-funding, ”once [creative industries] find a formula [of] how they can sell a product – a special type of website or special strategy – they tend then to sell the same thing over and over.” Comparing the culture sector to others such as biotech or the financial industry, Sevcik claimed that the latter is more creative and innovative than the culture industries.
Sevcik came equipped with an answer to his critique of the superficial cultural fix. Education, he declared, is the area that deserves more focus and which has the greatest potential to truly develop culture, creativity and, as a result, cities. It may not promise immediate, visible gains that officials can point to as achievements and “progress,” but a more bottom-up approach that seeks to mend and change the actual cultural fabric of the city is what seems to be in order.
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