Monthly Archives: March 2011

More than Creative Workers: Creative Exports

There’s much more to creating a creative economy than calling your city a friendly home for creative workers. There’s more to it than offering jobs that are (potentially) sustainable, more than a convivial lifestyle for the creatively inclined. There is even more than winning new visitors who spend money locally, though this is in itself significant. A centerpiece of economic development is exports – gaining new dollars into the economy from other markets that buy what you produce. As such, an export plan, strategies, and sales force are essential to the success of a creative economy. When I think about the arts councils of tomorrow, the roles of chambers of commerce and economic development agencies in fostering the creative economy, the first thing I think of is how all of these can work together to create a climate favorable for and even facilitating the export of local creativity-based products and services to create new revenue from outside the market.

Exporting drove the growth of the American arts sector in its early post WWII decades, though it was largely focused around the major institutions from the major population centers. In the heyday of recordings and tours, performing arts organizations and museums alike realized revenue from export sales far outside their own markets. (The recording contracts of old brought in real new dollars from around the country and around the globe. And the brand and image boosts from tours brought in more than audience and donor revenue: it rubbed off on other export products, opening up markets for other products from the same cities. Mayors and business delegations used to go along on international tours with their local orchestras or ballet companies for this very reason.)

Those days are largely gone. At the same time, hundreds of smaller cities and towns now seek to realize economic gain from creativity, and the creation and maintenance of such an economic gain needs more than cultural tourism to drive it. Today’s smaller markets need to export creativity, just as our big cities did a generation ago. We need a new generation of export strategies, developed and implemented at the local levels, to open up, expand, and sustain national and international markets for local creative work that includes everything from fine art to creative innovation – and is likely delivered via technology.

To get there, new training for the field is important. How does an artist move from a local market or a regional tour market to an international market? How does an artist entrepreneur connect to and supply an international buyer market? And how does this local export industry grow and thrive, so that the attention and money that comes into the market from the first sale leads to greater opportunities as your city becomes increasingly known for its creative products? What about protecting intellectual property rights for the creator?

There’s another interesting point to thinking about the exportability of creative work. Is it of the quality and uniqueness that claims interest and purchase from other markets? The ability to succeed as exports drove a huge number of America’s arts organizations to invest heavily in excellence in the decades post WWII. Local leaders rationalized making investments to attract top artists to take up residency in their communities and spend their careers on their stages so that they could compete and win market share outside their own communities, through the unique product to entice new visitors, recordings, touring and other outlets. (I have a hunch that a great deal of what was initially thought of as short term investment to build highly competitive creative (arts) product went on to become annual grant funding. Along the way, the original rational of funding excellence that had export value was lost, to be replaced with more locally-oriented definitions of excellence, outreach, or service, which I think led to a lot of the anti-funding sentiments out there from politicians and local business leaders who once supported arts funding.)

As it was a generation ago, it is time to raise the exportability issue. Other revenue options are constrained. Funding is diminished. Local markets aren’t big enough to sustain local creative economies. Yet creative product is highly prized and valued world wide, and America’s creatives take the back seat to no one. In this global economy, our collective creative economy goals should be to win ever greater international market share and benefits back into our local economies.