There are times when a conversation becomes a cause, and a meeting becomes a movement.
Hopefully, that will be the case as a result of the “Creative Conversation” that took place a couple of weeks ago at Memphis College of Art, which sponsored the discussion along with MPACT Memphis.
It was a bracing evening. Most of all, it was a convincing reminder of the depths of creative talent and spirit that exist in Memphis and a clear demonstration of their willingness to become a positive force for change.
Coalition For Change
More precisely, we’re hoping that ultimately the conversation will give birth to The Memphis Creative Coalition, a new, organized effort to elevate attention to creativity as a competitive force in Memphis, as a competitive advantage for Memphis and as the driving force in our city brand.
There were six panelists engaged in the Memphis conversation – Gary Backaus, Principal and Chief Creative Officer at archer>malmo advertising; Karen Blockman Carrier, Founder of local restaurants Automatic Slim’s, Beauty Shop, Do and Molly Fontaine’s Lounge; Eric Matthews, co-founder of Mercury Technology Labs; Pat Mitchell Worley, Director of Development and Communications at Memphis Music Foundation; Chris Reyes, Founder, Creative Director at Ninjacat; and Joann Self Selvidge, founder and executive director of True Story Pictures. Tom Jones from Smart City Consulting and Smart City Memphis moderated the discussion.
They were provocative guides in the discussion, but equally important, approximately 150-200 people in the audience agreed with them on a central point – it’s time for creative workers to stake out their own claim to a city where creativity has inspired everything from wide-ranging musical breakthroughs to entrepreneurial innovations that fundamentally changed the social and economic fabric in the entire world.
The Right Plan
If Memphis can develop a plan for logistics, a plan for tourism, a plan for biotech, a plan for an aerotropolis and a Fast Forward plan, it can surely develop a plan for creativity, one that addresses the creative economy, creative workers and the so-called creative class. While these are fundamentally different concepts, they are interconnected and they will in real ways determine whether Memphis succeeds or stumbles in the next decade.
More to the point, we need the Memphis Creative Coalition to develop a “Creative City Plan of Action” that mobilizes support for creativity to become a force that’s not just reserved for artist studios, recording studios, design studios, restaurant kitchens and creative companies. Rather, we need a plan that makes creativity such a central part of our city that it is found in public decision-making, private and public investments and the social fabric of Memphis.
As our colleague Carol Coletta points out, there are more people in the U.S. today who are working in the creative economy than in manufacturing, and because design especially adds value to products, services and experiences, the real impact of creative industries far outstrips the impact of the immediate jobs they generate.
Just The Facts
Creative workers are good for cities like ours. Of the creative workers in the U.S., 91 percent live in metro areas, and they are 53% more likely than other workers to choose to live in close-in neighborhoods. In the top 50 metros, 41% of all creative jobs are within three miles of the central business district, which compares to 17% of all jobs.
Overall, creative jobs are only one-third as likely to be as sprawling as other jobs. In 49 of the 50 largest metros, they are more centralized than other jobs, and 26% work for themselves, five times the rate of other industry sectors.
The importance of these creative workers is seen in the aggressive recruiting that’s being done to attract them to the most dynamic cities in the U.S. And yet, the answer to being a magnet for these workers is not simply a big project. Memphis has embarked on several of these, notably Shelby Farms Park, Beale Street Landing and Wolf River Greenway, and all of these are crucial, but they are elements in a broader plan for a city whose distinctiveness, innovation and culture are defined by a creative ethos that infuses all aspects of the city.
The Other Ecosystem
That’s why the Conversation in Creativity was so important. If Memphis wants to be successful as a creative city in the knowledge economy, we need to talk to our best experts – the creative people who are part of our city. They, more than any expert, can tell us what our city should do.
That was in fact the purpose of the session at Memphis College of Art, and the overriding question was: What are the elements of a Memphis creative ecosystem?
Here’s some of the ideas:
• Creative economy venture capital fund
• Workforce development plan for creatives
• Micro-lending system
• Downtown parking stickers for creative workers, particularly musicians
• A wireless city, beginning with downtown
• Vibrant public realm that connects creatives
• Tax incentives for the creative economy
• Exploration of creative ways to animate downtown and to use empty storefronts
• Recognition that creativity can be an answer to poverty
• Celebration of our own best practices instead of copying other cities’ programs
Soldiers For Cities
The 90-minute conversation was just the beginning of discussions that need to continue throughout Memphis. That’s because creatives are instrumental to developing the kind of Memphis that can compete in the increasingly complex innovation economy.
Here’s why: creatives are soldiers for urban redevelopment. They are sparks for the vibrancy that lies at the heart of successful cities. They are the sources of new thinking and new ideas that challenge conventional thinking and traditional answers. They are boundary-crossers who connect different parts of our city to create a collective sense of community.
To do this, we must change the fundamental way we approach our culture. It’s not just about bringing good arts events to the people and funding arts organizations. More to the point, it’s about enabling the creative capacity of all Memphians.
The good news is that there has never been a more creative time than this. People want to be participants and not spectators, and as a result, they are making their own films in record numbers, they are making their own music in thousands of home studios, they are writing their own blogs and books and they are looking for ways to engage with other creative people to reconnect with the deep reservoir of creativity that has made us who we are in the first place.
In the end, Memphis’ challenge is to make its mark in a century where cities are increasingly divided into the haves and the have-nots as a result of their ability to activate its own creative economy and mobilize its creative workers to be more directly involved in the economic development of their cities.