The Cultural Economy Comes of Age: Focusing on Process Over Product
“The cultural economy is not only about output but also about processes.” This was the central message of Professor Andy C. Pratt’s opening remarks that launched and framed Poder Hacer, the first international conference on creative cities held in Mexico City. The recent two-day symposium (September 22–23) organized a collection of keynote speakers, performers, and talks engaging new ways to expand “the scope of civic action within the creation of new public policy for creative agents”. In an attempt to signal the key ideas of the conference, Pratt’s initial address drew upon his extensive research as a professor of Cultural Economy at the City University London dedicated to investigating the relationship between culture, creativity, and the economy to governance and policy. Attending the conference on behalf of NCAP, I focused on the Professor’s comments as a useful point of entry into current studies of the creative economy as it relates to overall health and vitality of cities.
Andy Pratt’s first claim is that the cultural economy has “come of age” (image shows Professor Pratt speaking at the Poder Hacer Conference). According to his research, academics, policymakers, and entrepreneurs are finally understanding and treating the arts and creative industries as important driving forces in the economy. Nevertheless, Pratt argues that these actors are missing the greater picture when trying to consider or manage the cultural economy as a regular industry, focusing only on its outputs while ignoring the creativity that is harnessed through its processes.
This argument presents a slight counter to Richard Florida’s concept of the creative class, and the way that it has been used to promote an instrumental use of culture. Pratt asserts that city governments have been employing arts and culture in three main ways based on strategic planning informed by Florida’s research: 1) to curate the city, its heritage and history; 2) for the purposes of place marketing and attracting economic investment; and 3) to encourage social transformation. He views this as a partially productive thinking that, however, fails to place enough emphasis on a central piece of the cultural economy: the ability to explore and experiment.
Indeed, Pratt argues that the cultural economy is all about risk and experimentation, and that by engaging in its processes, its economic agents embrace creativity and innovation in a way that is not possible in other industries. During his remarks at the conference, he invited audiences to think beyond a specific artistic piece (e.g., a painting displayed in a museum), and consider the value of the process that leads an artist toward a creative discovery and its results. For Pratt, planning and executing an artistically successful, as well as economically viable, cultural initiative or project relies on an evolving process of investigation, exploration, and exchange between diverse minds in a context of risk and uncertainty — the perfect scenario for fostering creativity and innovation.
His ideas are particularly relevant for the evaluation of cultural programs. For instance, during the summer of 2016, NCAP conducted an impact evaluation of cultural programs piloted at a major downtown destination located in Chicago now beginning to offer a range of cultural offerings and events more representative of its eclectic home city. This assessment not only revealed important impacts on program participants and visitors, but also the documented changes that occurred within the client organization’s culture. One of NCAP’s main findings was that, by engaging in a piloting model, the organization embraced a creative and experimental dynamic that had been less practiced in the past. The client developed programming through exploration and experimentation much in line with Pratt’s advice to invest in the creative process. This approach had positive outcomes for the client and, perhaps by extension, the greater surrounding city as well.
For Pratt, planning and executing an artistically successful, as well as economically viable, cultural initiative or project relies on an evolving process of investigation, exploration, and exchange between diverse minds in a context of risk and uncertainty — the perfect scenario for fostering creativity and innovation.
The contemporary problems faced by our communities compel us to embrace and promote creativity and innovation. Arts and culture should not be seen as merely instruments to achieve various types of impacts, but also as mechanisms through which actors become creative agents that are better positioned to face the complex challenges of today’s growing and evolving urban areas. The value of arts and culture can be determined by understanding the creative process as not merely a means to manufacture economically beneficial amenities and commodities — it is a fundamentally fresh approach to thinking about and reimagining cities in the future.
NCAP thanks the Laboratorio para la Ciudad, that put together Poder Hacer, and Andy Pratt for exploring a more comprehensive understanding of culture and creativity.