New Leadership Shaping the Creative Community

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It is one of the world’s best-kept secrets.

Oh yes, we have advocates for the arts. We also have urban planners that want to reinvent their city… and politicians’ that will promise us anything to get elected. But where is the leadership- often the quiet leadership- that shapes a truly creative community.

The leadership can come from anywhere, but it is the elected and appointed executive who can influence a state, a region or a city’s policies. Those folks are usually best situated to make things happen. This was not the case in Portland, but more about that later.

Take the Mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, who in 2003 (he is now governor of the state) was eager to demonstrate that it is art and culture that make a city vibrant and who argued, “art and culture come first, commerce follows.”

In the process of building several restaurants Hickenlooper owned, he became involved with more than a few downtown Denver renovation and development projects. In the process he “helped revitalize Denver’s Lower Downtown historic district,” according to many observers. Today, Denver is considered a destination for companies and people seeking a creative and innovation-focused place to live and work.

Philadelphia is perhaps the only city with someone who has the title of “Chief Cultural Officer” in an office of “Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.” The Chief Cultural Officer reports directly to the mayor and Gary Steuer, the current occupant, has a lot to say over what the city does.

Appointed by the mayor in 2004 when the city was feeling a budget crunch (so what else is new), he had only a small staff and no budget was able to create Philadelphia’s first capital funding initiative targeting the arts and creative industries, and initiated an arts and creative economy “data mapping project,” a time consuming way to see everything a city has in the way of art and culture, and judge its impact socially, and economically.

Now, some years later the city-obviously with considerable cultural and historical assets — can boast it is on the “Brink of Becoming the Art Capital of the USA,” according to Frommer’s Travel Guide, and a lot of others who watch these ratings closely.

In Texas the leadership came from Texas House Representative Larry Phillips and Senate Member Judith Zaffirini. In 2005, Phillips authored and Zaffirini sponsored, legislation that gave birth to a plan establishing art and “cultural districts” throughout the state.

Although neither Phillips nor Zaffirini received much credit, the bill explicitly recognized that “a thriving creative sector is a powerful economic development asset,” and authorized the State Arts Commission to identify “special zones that harness the power of cultural resources to stimulate economic development and community revitalization. These districts can become focal points for generating businesses, attracting tourists, stimulating cultural development and fostering civic pride.”

While every city is different and may have a different strategy, sixteen cities including Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio and a handful of smaller cities have now created districts that support art and culture in the schools and throughout the community.

In Portland, Ore., one of those few cities that finds itself on one of the “best’ lists of cities-for neighborhoods, its urban growth boundary, or its beer — it was clear to almost everyone in the city that a regional approach to creativity made most sense. Eloise Damrosch, Executive Director at RACC says “we could not accomplish what we have if we were a government organization,” or serving just Portland. Everyone in the city and the three counties worked together to create a truly regional collaboration to serve artists, arts organizations, schools and residents throughout Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties.

Starting with executives and artists and educators from the county of Multnomah — and of course the City of Portland — the effort to create a regional alliance of art and culture, educational and economic development institutions in the northwest exploded almost magically in about 1995. The new non-profit alliance now serves “artists, arts organizations, schools and residents” throughout the region. Together they launched The Right Brain Initiative, to integrate arts education experiences into the standard curriculum of every K-8 classroom across the region’s school districts, and have a November ballot initiative to potentially strengthen, and institutionalize, art education.

As communities plan to reinvent themselves for the new, knowledge-based economy and society, they must consciously invest in these broader human and financial resources, and encourage architectural and land use to prepare their citizens to meet the challenges of the rapidly evolving, global, knowledge-based economy and society.

Becoming a creative community is complex and often convoluted, but mostly requires new thinking, new policies, new leadership… which doesn’t necessarily fit into any existing cubbyhole.

In the future, says Theresa Cameron, Local Arts Agency Services Program Manager of the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) has said, they hope to produce a update of an earlier report on the role of cultural districts in cities, but more importantly, launch a proposed three-year effort to involve mayors and other city executives in the discussion, to help cities across America reinvent their city for the age of “creativity and innovation.”


About John M Eger

Professor of Communications and Public Policy and Director of the Creative Economy Initiative, San Diego State University.

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New Leadership Shaping the Creative Community

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