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Mar 10
2009

Thoughts on the Creative Providence Project

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Five months ago, I attended one of the first Creative Providence community forums. The other evening, I attended the third of six studio sessions to examine specific areas of the Cultural Plan. In addition to the various formal sessions, I've had dozens of conversations with participants. Now that this project is starting to take on a life of its own, I thought I'd share some observations.

What, Exactly, is a Creative?

No single question has gotten more discussion than the definition of who or what constitutes an artist, a designer or a creative. What constitutes creativity in the business sector? At the studio focusing on economic factors, panelist Jack Templin of Providence Geeks laid out an interesting cluster of clusters (definitions are totally mine, so go ahead and correct me in a comment):

  • Art - generally meaning studio art and "high brow" performing arts
  • Culture - non-art museums and some part of humanities
  • Design - commercial images and creations
  • Entertainment - low brow performing arts and non-arts venues (nightlife)

These four clusters, he felt, had a certain symbiosis and supported each other. For the purposes of the Cultural Plan, they seem to be settling around a definition that would put art at the center and then include the relavant portions of the other three clusters. And, for those purposes, that make quite a bit of sense. 

But for my purposes, this cluster of clusters - this mega-cluster - is incomplete. 

To begin, the geeks are not included. Geeks like the arts, music in particular. I joked with Jack, "How many of the geeks are in a band?" And the answer is a lot of them. (The reason for this anomaly is that both music and computers are based on mathematics.) Geeks also play a vital role in the arts-based megacluster. Digital technology drives a large portion of the work in the design and entertainment clusters, so creatives in those areas can end up being very geeky, indeed.

The fact that Jack was asked to sit on the panel - and that it made imminent sense that he do so - shows how close these two clusters are. When tech companies look at relocating, different states' tax policies are rarely issue #1. They want a place where their people can be happy and comfortable, and that means a lively urban lifestyle. Invariably, they want diverse ethnicities and an active local arts scene. Good transit helps, too, but that's another conversation.

The other cluster that's missing from this megacluster is the green cluster. The logic isn't as clear as with the geeks, but the connections are strong with a significant portion of creatives. First off, if they get to build anything, they want to build it green. This segment is generally urban in mindset as well as location, so public transit plays an important role in their lives. Many of them play a direct role in environmental organizations. And they like to connect their creative work to this cause. 

All Roads Lead To Real Estate

It seems like virtually all of the conversations wind up talking about real estate and the cluster of issues associated with it.

  • Financing - and how the deck is stacked against creatives
  • Environment/green building
  • Zoning - and how the deck is stacked against creatives
  • Leaseholder security - and how the deck is stacked against creatives 

Creatives, not surprisingly, tend to be non-traditional in their approach to space. A finished space with a good address does not fit the bill. Rather, an unfinished or sem-finished space at low cost will serve nicely, even if it's in a backwater like, say, Pawtucket.

When creatives rent a low-cost space, they do so knowing that, at some point, they will have to leave that space so that the owner can enrich himself. It could be for higher rents, or redevelopment, or the building's sales. But, inevitably, the creative will be evicted.

Like most people, creatives are generally happy to see their neighborhoods improve, but not at the expense of their own security. Cities need to find methodologies that allow neighborhoods to improve while maintaining a certain amount of low-cost, unfinished space for creative use. 

Contemporary placemaking supports this notion. The authenticity or liveliness of a place depends largely on diversity. As the demographics of a neighborhood narrow, so does its appeal as a place.

Community First

For those who primarily identify as artists, this last point - that they shouldn't have to leave their own neighborhood when it starts to improve - leads to the thought:

Niether should anybody else.

That is, if it makes sense for artists to enjoy a certain accomodation so they can stay in a certain neighborhood even though they're poor, then all low-income people should be afforded that same accomodation, regardless of their place in the creative ecosystem. If it makes sense to create a program to help artists buy and renovate abandonded properties, then it makes sense for that program to be available to everybody who feels they can successfully renovate a property. 

These artists break from the tradition of artist-as-elitist. If anything, they are populists, even proletarians. They want to be a part of the community where they live, and they want to use their talent and energy to improve that community, not just for themselves, but for all its members. As Bert Crenca said at that meeting:

I don't know how to build an art space. I just know how to build a community.

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