Journalism: Urbanism: Creative economy can benefit from patronage

Sep 23, 2011

Creative economy can benefit from patronage

The Portland Daily Sun


While I generally share Mr. MilNeil’s concerns over the dubious nature of cultural development (“Don’t let creative economy grow stagnant or get stifled,” columns, Thursday, Sept. 22), I nevertheless disagree with some of his assertions. For one thing, artists have long sought the support of patrons and funders of the sort that Donald Sussman is; and great art is just as often of the establishment as it is subversive. Indeed, someone needs to buy the all the art that people are making. But more to the point, with the right kind of help from our pols a stronger art scene and stronger economy can go hand in hand.

For example, in the early 1960s artists were illegally occupying industrial spaces in an area called the South Houston Industrial District (aka “Hell’s Hundred Acres”). A loose group of these artists known as the Artists Tenants Association made an agreement with the city to allow for live/work spaces for light manufacturing (i.e., the production of art). They cited as precedence the fact that small shop keepers lived behind their storefronts. In order to live in one of these transitional loft spaces you needed be an artist and to go through an artist certification process; occasionally folks would try to fake their way in. The neighborhood became known as SoHo and it had a pretty good run as an artist’s district. High income people were attracted to the area and that boosted the economy, however it was the relaxation of the artist-only laws, and other legislation like the 1982 Loft Law; which eventually pushed out the artists and the remaining manufacturing in favor of luxury lofts and retail.

That is not to say that success of SoHo can repeated here, but it does show how smart policy decisions can greatly affect the lives of artists and the cultural life of cities, the Mill in Westbrook being a local, if imperfect, example.

Ultimately this is not an either/or proposition. Mr. MilNeil’s point that low-income neighborhoods add culturally vibrancy to cities is borne out historically. Joseph Papp, the impresario of the Public Theater fought successfully to save low-income housing in lower Manhattan to the benefit of all. But by the same token, the creative economy is real; the people in office in Augusta would not be dumping money into things like the Maine Arts Commission if they did not expect a return on the investment; the famous Rockefeller Report identified the arts as an “economic multiplier” and paved the way to much beneficial arts legislation.

Among the many barriers to achieving this is that all too many people — politicians and the public alike — do not know, or seemingly care, very much about art. Ironically this does not stop them from enjoying the vibe at events like the First Friday Art Walk (and the bars and restaurants afterwards). Unfortunately, most people see paintings as just paintings whether they be by Gerhard Richter or one of the ubiquitous water color seascapes done by a “local artist.”

At the same time there is a sentiment that the poor and those living in subsidized housing are somehow noble in doing so; but shouldn’t we thrive for better jobs and higher employment?

The creativity and innovation to make Portland an important and more economically developed art scene rests with the policy makers but also with the artists themselves.

Zachary Barowitz