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Artistic turn

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There's a shift developing in the Triangle's discussion of the vital role artists and the arts play in the community, and it's about time. In two recent meetings—a brainstorming potluck last week sponsored by the Raleigh organizers of Spark Con and a high-end forum Tuesday on "Building a Creative Community for a New Creative Economy" in Durham—the subject turned to ways the community can support artists and artistic entrepreneurs. It's a welcome change from the edifice complexes that have dominated discussions until now.

It was a more natural turn for Spark Con, a grassroots effort to connect artists and other creative workers with the rest of the community, aiming to turn the Triangle into "the creative hub of the South." More than 2,000 people attended its first workshops and events last September, and the fear was that it was mostly creative types talking to themselves. But Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker was there, and he later asked for help with the Fayetteville Street plaza that was the scene of the Jaume Plensa debacle. That's a start, but they've got a long way to go before escaping the mentality that has produced lots of support for a big convention center and nothing for the little guys (Kings and Bickett Gallery, RIP).

Durham's got a different problem. Tuesday's forum was filled with officialdom—politicos, heads of arts organizations, redevelopers of tobacco warehouses—the people who have been responsible for the resurgence of downtown Durham. But it's also been based on big projects (American Tobacco, streetscape improvements, a performing arts center) and not help for small business owners and other artistic entrepreneurs.

The mantra for both groups has been the importance of author Richard Florida's venerated "creative class," the techies and musicians and designers who make places attractive to ... more techies, musicians and designers—and the big companies that want to hire them. But lost in the discussion about economic benefits has been Florida's belief that the important thing is support for the artists themselves, not big-ticket projects (see "Creative class war," April 20, 2005).

So it was refreshing at Tuesday's forum at the McKinney ad agency's ultrahip offices to hear mentions of artists as entrepreneurs, of Austin's coordinated support for musicians and nonprofits, of the need to "marshal public resources to make the creative economy a focus of economic development efforts," of plans for affordable artists' lofts and studios.

We have a wealth of artists, musicians and creative types here in the Triangle. They're here because we have a vibrant economy, but one that barely taps their potential. If the creative types of Spark Con can get more attention from politicos and business leaders, and the folks at Durham's "Arts in Workplace Development" forum keep paying attention to the potential that artists, designers and musicians have to enrich the community, then maybe we really can become "the creative hub of the South." But not until then.

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