Creative economy losing some steam
Leadership, investment declining in Berkshire County, across state
1BERKSHIRE, Berkshire County’s leading economic development organization, released a strategic report last month called The Berkshire Blueprint 2.0 that, on the surface, seems to provide helpful action steps for supporting the region’s vibrant creative economy.
The report’s six “creative cluster” recommendations include collaborations, professional development, and communication tools that connect creative people to resources as well as each other. While this strategy is undeniably important, it is not new. For a decade, the creative economy was supported by a countywide organization called Berkshire Creative that supplied the very initiatives the blueprint calls for.
Launched in 2007, Berkshire Creative was the industry hub that gave the creative economy “a voice within the Berkshire economy,” according to the blueprint. “The brand was strengthened, networking opportunities increased, and individual artists and creatives received technical assistance, professional development, and business connections.”
But over the past few years, investment dissipated and leaders stepped back from supporting countywide creative economy initiatives.
“Historically that work has been funded philanthropically,” said Jonathan Butler, 1Berkshire’s president and CEO. “When we absorbed Berkshire Creative we were able to manage some of that, but the position didn’t align with our membership.”
Now, creatives are often forced to find resources on their own or organize subregional infrastructure.
“It’s frustrating when multiple groups in Berkshire County are doing the same things with the same goals,” said Jen Glockner, Pittsfield’s director of cultural development. “Countywide creative economy leadership is missing. I think it’s very important to have a countywide cultural cohort.”
Despite lacking the funding necessary to focus on the creative economy, Butler said that 1Berkshire will be a key partner in upcoming “cluster leadership hub” meetings along with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation in Sheffield.
“These organizations are a starting point because they are in a position to take on more capacity,” he said.
Investment trends indicate otherwise. The college’s Berkshire Cultural Resource Center staff support was cut in half in 2017 after the hiring of director Michelle Daly, who will be leaving the position at the end of the month, and two signature programs that directly supported the creative economy – the Berkshire Hills internship program and Tricks of the Trade – were downsized.
“In terms of Tricks of the Trade, we are taking a pause to reevaluate the program,” said Gina Puc, dean of enrollment management and community relations. The program, which provided artists across the county with free professional development, completed its final season in 2014 after three seminars about, coincidentally, the creative economy.
“We are looking at what’s the demand, what’s the need,” said Puc.
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and 1Berkshire both seem to agree that the creative economy can be supported through broader entrepreneurial initiatives, especially as they pertain to the blueprint.
“Action steps may naturally dovetail through our work with cultural institutions and resources we provide for entrepreneurs and small businesses,” said Butler. “Berkshire Taconic is a partner because of their relationship with us. We are doing work with them on entrepreneurship that dovetails with the creative economy, and lots of small businesses and entrepreneurs are part of the creative economy.”
But Natalie Tyler, a sculptor and owner of L’Atelier Berkshires in Great Barrington, argues that creatives need resources of their own. She moved to the Berkshires from New York City in 2015 thanks to a relocation grant from Assets for Artists, a financial training program facilitated by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
“I know about 1Berkshire’s entrepreneurial meetups but, after my first year, I couldn’t afford to be part of 1Berkshire and I wasn’t sure if I could go without being a member,” Tyler explained.
After trying and failing multiple times to secure an artist grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, she questioned whether she had been denied because she is a business owner. At the same time, she said, she did not feel supported by 1Berkshire as a gallerist. “I’m sure there are companies in the Berkshires that can support artists, but they don’t know how to do it,” she said.
Blair Benjamin, director of Assets for Artists, agreed. “Running an artistic business and living the life of an artist is different from other businesses,” he said. “Trust is a huge factor, especially when it comes to financial and business education. Artists are susceptible to the perception that they’re not good with money, not professional enough, not welcome.”
As for the blueprint action step that calls for Assets for Artists to expand to other corners of the county, Benjamin was not aware of its inclusion in the report prior to our early March interview.
“If we had some matching resources, we could do more of the work we’re doing up here elsewhere,” he said. “When Berkshire Creative was around, we had more success in getting artists from central and southern Berkshire County involved. I was a part of it, so it was easier to communicate.”
CHANGING PRIORITIES AT STATE LEVEL
The dilution of creative economy resources in Berkshire County mirrors a shift in creative sector support at the state level.
In 2008, former governor Deval Patrick hired the state’s first creative economy industry director and formed the Massachusetts Creative Economy Council, an advisory body charged with supporting the growth of the state’s creative sector. When Helena Fruscio, Berkshire Creative’s founding director, was tapped to serve as the creative economy industry director in 2011, she launched the Massachusetts Creative Economy Network as a way to build a statewide community of creatives and resources.
But with a change in administration came a restructuring of priorities. Gov. Charlie Baker merged creative sector work with other industries and eliminated the creative economy industry director position. Now, both the council and the network have been dissolved. Regional creative economy organizations and networks have lost important connectivity tools as well as a means to advocate for state funding and programs that target the needs of creative businesses.
According to the January 2019 report Rural Prosperity Through the Arts & Creative Sector commissioned by the National Governors Association, “an extensive body of research by a variety of policy analysts, economists, and scholars…points to arts and culture as economic development drivers.” States are more likely to feel the full impacts of the creative economy when governors provide leadership and infrastructure for the creative sector.
State arts agencies can play a pivotal role, the report argues. “Through this investment, state governments are important influencers of rural development in partnership with private investment, philanthropy, federal investment, and local governments,” the report said.
Massachusetts’ arts agency, the Mass Cultural Council, launched the Adams Arts Program in 2004 as a way to simulate “cultural economic development.” The program helped to launch four of Berkshire County’s primary creative economy support organizations: Assets for Artists, Berkshire Creative, Cultural Pittsfield, and the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center. Several of these organizations continued to receive Adams Arts funding through 2017, when the program ended.
“The Adams Arts Program was envisioned to be a sparkplug for the creative economy but, over time, it was losing that spark of innovation and needed a refresh,” said Anita Walker, Mass Cultural Council’s executive director.
The creative economy is not always a community’s top priority, she said. Mayors are as concerned about safety and opioids as they are about economic development. In response, the agency unveiled its Community Initiative as well as several new grant programs which refocus the agency’s impact-based work from economics to engagement.
THE RISE OF CREATIVE PLACEMAKING
Mass Cultural Council’s pivot is reflective of a broader trend in arts and culture funding marked by the appearance of the term “creative placemaking” in American cultural lexicon. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa identified and defined this new field in their 2010 white paper Creative Placemaking, which spurred a new wave of national and local grants, programs, and assessment methods. But, like creative economy resources, creative placemaking initiatives work best when communities invest in their own cultural development.
Although Mass Cultural Council’s cultural district program is a “sense of place” initiative, it puts more emphasis on collaborative, municipal-led cultural economic development. By focusing on specific, walkable areas in a community, “results are shown more quickly,” said Walker. Pittsfield, Williamstown, North Adams, and Great Barrington have cultural district designations, and Lenox’s application is pending.
Communities with cultural districts receive a $5,000 one-to-one matched grant that is often spent on branding and marketing. Walker said the match can be raised or allocated through city or town hall, but she is particularly interested in cultivating municipal investment in arts and culture.
“We are looking for cities and towns to have skin in the game so they can truly become partners,” she said. “We just want to get a line in the budget. It may be small, but it means that city councilors have to look at that line item every year and decide whether or not to keep it.”
Cities that dedicate larger budgets to hiring staff that advocate for and execute cultural projects are in a better position to strengthen the creative economy, said Kate Luchini, staff planner for art and culture for the city of Salem, Massachusetts.
“A lot of municipalities check a box when it comes to the arts,” she said. “They get a designation and make a website. But unless you have a percent for art tax or some other funding source, the work won’t have impact.”
Pittsfield is the only Berkshire community with a cultural district that has paid city positions charged with supporting activities within it, although funding for the Office of Cultural Development preceded the cultural district grant program.
“We have two full-time staff and an intern here,” said Glockner, director of the office. “Three mayors have retained this office, and never once have they said, ‘We’re not doing this.’”
With a city allocation of $109,000, the office is able to support independent creative economy initiatives in addition to facilitating its own events, which generate thousands of visitors – and income for artists – in Pittsfield’s Upstreet Cultural District.“A city that is serious about culture is perceived as a great place to live,” Glockner said. “It’s good for employers, employees, the creative community, and people moving back to the area.” Creative economy investment, to her, is a no-brainer.
Julia Dixon is a creative economy and cultural planning consultant based in North Adams.