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Arts & The 'Creative Economy'

As the economy slows down, Massachusetts lawmakers are banking on any sector that's poised to do well: biotech, renewable energy and the arts.

Cultural tourism is a two-billion dollar industry in the state, and that's just part of what's called the 'Creative Economy.'

WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on the Creative Economy's impact — how it's measured, and who's reaping the rewards.

ANDREA SHEA: These days the relationship between culture and commerce carries more clout on Beacon Hill than ever before. Representative Eric Turkington chairs the newly created Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.

ERIC TURKINGTON: This state has been through a number of economic iterations in its history and we started out trees and fish, trees and fish were the economy here, you chopped down the trees and sent them back to Europe and you caught the fish and that was the economy. And then we moved on to shoes and textiles and things like that and that's now history. Currently the number one and number two are probably financial services and healthcare, but number three is this Creative Economy we're talking about.

ANDREA SHEA: And that's why politicians are behind the concept. Turkington points to Governor Patrick's new budget which includes seven million dollars for the state's new Cultural Facilities Fund. It's a far cry from the one billion dollars proposed for life sciences, but it will help some museums and other cultural non-profits with building maintenance and upgrades. But still, Turkington says it's hard to define the Creative Economy.

ERIC TURKINGTON: Even the people in it don't agree on what it is, but it's clearly the wave of the future for Massachusetts.

ANDREA SHEA: The New England Foundation for the Arts has a new report that attempts to clarify what the Creative Economy is. Rebecca Blunk is the foundation's Executive Director.

REBECCA BLUNK: It's architects, it's sculptors, it's web designers, it's instrument makers, furniture makers, as well as museums and very visible institutions that are the purveyors and transmitters of culture.

ANDREA SHEA: The new report crunches numbers from the Census, tax returns and employment figures to reveal the creative sector's size and influence.

REBECCA BLUNK: For example: here in Massachusetts we're number one per capita in the presence of architects and number two in the whole country in the presence of designers.

ANDREA SHEA: Blunk says this workforce gives the state a competitive edge because people want to live in culturally alive places. Creativity also attracts economic activity. Representative Daniel Bosley of North Adams is proposing legislation to establish a Creative Economy Council within Office of Housing and Economic Development because he says he's seen what cultural tourists are doing for the western part of the state.

DANIEL BOSLEY: They're going to go to Tanglewood and they're going to museums they're going to go to plays at the Berkshire Theater Festival or the Williamstown Theater Festival and they spend a lot of money thank goodness and it helps our economy tremendously.

ANDREA SHEA: North Adams has felt a direct impact from one museum: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or Mass MoCA, which opened in 1999. A 2002 study found it helped create 800 new jobs and generated 14 million dollars in economic activity. Property values increased 10 percent. Crime dropped 58 percent.

JOSEPH THOMPSON: The numbers gloss your eyes.

ANDREA SHEA: Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson says he and others have witnessed the astounding turnaround.

JOSEPH THOMPSON: One of the former heads of the Economic Development Council for the state said North Adams was like living on the wrong side of a bowling alley.

ANDREA SHEA: In the eastern part of Massachusetts the Creative Economy is working...but on a different scale.

SOUND of blow torch lighting and burning

ANDREA SHEA: An artist fires up a blow torch at the New England Sculpture Service in Chelsea. It's the only bronze foundry in the state. Owner James Montgomery says his customers are artists...like himself...and he casts their designs...big and tiny...in metal. He did a 12 foot tall statue for the Olympics in Greece and keeps the 'Make Way for Ducklings' figures in Boston in formation.

JAMES MONTGOMERY: When they steal the ducks in the public garden we cast the replacements.

ANDREA SHEA: Right now Montgomery has seven employees and takes in about half a million dollars each year...but any profit goes back into maintaining the building. It's a 23,000 square foot warehouse. Almost half is unoccupied.

JAMES MONTGOMERY: We'd like to develop that and divide it up into studio space for working artists.

ANDREA SHEA: Last week the New England Sculpture Service received a $4,000 state grant to assess what it would take to do that. It comes through ArtistLink, a state-based initiative that helps create stable environments for artists. Unlike other industries...like biotech...which lobbies the government for support...Montgomery says artist generally work in isolation and aren't thinking about the Creative Economy.

JAMES MONTGOMERY: The two words almost don't fit together because creativity doesn't think too much about money a lot of times and that's the part they don't cover in art school how do you make a living at this?

SOUND from shop

LOUISA MCCALL: You know it's always been hard to measure the impact of artistic production and that's because art is that which moves us emotionally and it's very hard to capture that in numbers.

ANDREA SHEA: Louisa McCall is the Program Director at the LEF Foundation, which focuses on supporting independent contemporary artists. She says some worry they'll be left behind as the Creative Economy steams ahead.

LOUISA MCCALL: So I would say that right now it's policy makers and researchers and economists that are really grabbing a hold of this phenomenon or subject of this creative economy. I think artists are doing that less.

ANDREA SHEA: But some are approaching Beacon Hill. Artist Kathleen Bitetti is the Executive Director of the Artists Foundation...and was instrumental in pulling together 'Artists Under the Dome'...a pow-wow with politicians at the State House. At one point Bitetti says she and two other artists met with the Attorney General to talk about a law for independent contractors.

KATHLEEN BITETTI: We've never done that before. We went to the wrong building because we've never been there before but that kind of dialogue that they're willing to talk with us and we've seen it in these other sectors is pretty amazing.

ANDREA SHEA: The creative workforce is diverse in Massachusetts...from the programmer who designed the videogame Frogger...to the small company that crafts wheel chairs for dogs. And while some worry the momentum behind the Creative Economy will wane...especially if the economic picture worsens...many believe the impact artists, designers, actors, craftsman and innovators have on the state is vital.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

This program aired on January 30, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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