The Creative Economy as Accordion

Two arts articles in the July 30th St. Petersburg Times reminded me that the key metaphor for the Creative Economy is an accordion.

It needs to both contract and expand to play lively dance music!

Mature artists in virtually all cultures have realized and exalted in the duality of human life. It is the yin & yang, light & darkness, sickness & health, work & play, love & hate that make us whole as creative human beings and as a society.

Arts and cultural institutions ultimately reflect and mirror the talents, manias, and malaises of their hometowns. Their buildings and organizational structures define and embed all that we are (and are not) as communities.

The last century of Florida history is an often wacky tale of dizzying land booms and dispiriting real estate crashes. The current bust is most likely just another temporary downturn — but keep in mind that “temporary” can mean anything from two years to 20 years.

In terms of the articles:

Chihuly Collection is still on, despite lean times for arts

This article paints a sober, unflinching, but essentially positive picture of St. Pete’s museum scene. As a culture-loving resident of the Sunshine City, it rings true to me. My wife Amy and I have considerable faith in both the practicality and creativity of our cultural leaders and their boards. The story of the Morean Arts Center and the Dale Chihuly Museum are a case in point.

Nearly 40 years ago Amy and I were students at RISD, where Dale Chihuly was a professor at that tiny, impoverished, and eccentric art school. Like today, those were also difficult times: economic upheaval, restricted gasoline, spiraling interest rates, and racial tension. Despite those obstacles, RISD has more than doubled the size of its student body, studio facilities, and museum space. And Providence is one now one of America’s most beautiful and desirable American cities. Hollywood even made a hit television series named after the place.

This all happened because a small but dedicated group of arts administrators, business and civic leaders, preservationists, educators, and young people were willing to invest their working lives in an eclectic, inclusive, and creative urban vision.

This type of success story could repeat itself in the Tampa Bay.

For young USF, UT, Eckerd, SP College, Hillsborough CC, New College, IADT, and Ringling grads, now is the time to both hunker down and start taking calculated career risks on the assumption that things will eventually get better. Your optimism and focused imagination could very well mean a better future for everyone.

For relatively affluent and influential Tampa Bay boomers, now is the time to focus on our young peoples’ future — not ourselves. The reality is that many our key cultural institutions are in reasonably good shape, considering the global financial meltdown. But they must be financially supported in the harrowing present so they don’t enter into a period of decline and mediocrity.

The second story makes a nice counterpart to the previous news article about “ART” in all capital letters. It is about decidedly lowercase “artists.”

St. Petersburg wants to turn decaying blocks into artist haven

This is a story about hauling off broken down junk to make way for artist studios and creative small businesses on the abandoned 600 block of Central Avenue.

It was great to see this much-needed urban revitalization spearheaded by St. Pete art gallery owner and city council member Leslie Curran. Our region needs more creative people to step to the plate and become politicians. Although Leslie and I did not see eye-to-eye on the proposed Ray’s waterfront stadium (diplomatic understatement), we can agree that artists and cultural creative types are the catalysts to a dynamic urban environment.

For me as a veteran artist and designer, the only disturbing aspect about this very well-written article was the vision of the artist entrepreneur as both a hyper-kinetic fixer-upper and fungible sucker — forever doomed to patch up the holes left by reckless real estate developers and hapless city planners.

The reality is that the creative people — who are doing the actual work that increases property values for both the financial speculator and city coffers — are essentially unpaid.

Over the last two years the median price for a house in the Tampa Bay has dropped from approximately $240K to about $140K and fixed-rate mortgages can sometimes be secured in the 5 to 7 percent range. This makes home/studio ownership potentially attractive in the long term.

There are benefits to some artists and storeowners to renovate the spaces on Central Avenue and have that temporary retail presence. But other artists and businesses might consider this: rather than work for nothing and be thrown out of your space when times begin to improve, it may make more sense to find a block of derelict houses or businesses and form a syndicate so that you have an equity stake from all your hard work and risk taking.

This strategy will involve plenty of headaches and heartaches. But “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is as likely to be true tomorrow as it was yesterday.

Young and currently houseless creative Tampa types should peruse this Wall Street Journal article on Artists vs. Blight.

Better yet — some well connected boomers in the real estate industry should read it!

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