Art Basel Miami Beach, North America’s premiere haute art fair, where you can pass a Picasso on your right while sneaking a glance at an A-list celebrity to your left, is not often a place where serious critiques of the art world arise. And yet, at this year’s fair, Thomas Sevcik, managing director of Arthesia, (a think tank that consults large institutions on cultural positioning and strategies), gave an important and provocatively titled talk — “Why Art and the Creative Class Will Never Save Cities” – taking on the so-called “Bilbao Effect” and the dubious benefits a city gains when rebranding itself as a cultural capital to attract “creative types,” in the hope that innovation and economic power will naturally follow.
The dominating rise of cities in the last half century, and the dizzying pace of globalization in the last two decades, have unleashed fierce competition between major urban areas for the talent and resources of the globe’s increasingly mobile talent pool. Today, half the world’s population lives in cities, as compared with 30% only 60 years ago, and in developed countries, the number is closer to 75%. In terms of actual economic output, according to Bruce Katz of the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, the United States’ “major metros already generate more than three-quarters of our gross domestic product.” Cities are more powerful than ever and their populations are increasingly mobile and open to relocating both themselves and their businesses.
Because of these new powerful dynamics, the traditional beneficiaries of the world’s brain drains can no longer take their historical magnetism for granted. Attracting talent has become a major preoccupation for civic leaders and many of them have found inspiration in theories such as those of Richard Florida, whose popular books from a few years ago, The Rise of the Creative Class and Flight of the Creative Class, describe “creative capital” as essential to a city’s economic success in the new globalized world. As Florida wrote in Flight of the Creative Class, “Concentrations of creative talented people are particularly important for innovation…Ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when large numbers of innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact with one another, both in and out of the office.”
However, as is often the case, civic leaders tend to make use of popular theories in diluted or superficial forms. As Thomas Sevcik lamented, “Poor Richard Florida – his theory is very right but it was then misused for short-term thinking. I am not criticizing his claim for creative capital.” What Sevcik does criticize is the resulting phenomenon, what he describes as “The use of art and culture [and] the culture industry as a simple marketing tool, a superficial way of trying to gain momentum for a city…and it’s not really helping the cities.”
New World Symphony, Miami | Photo by Didier Leroi
Sevcik noted the ubiquity of “Archi-porn” and the tendency of many cities to declare themselves “cultural capitals,” hire big-name architects to design glorious new cultural centers and hope that talent and business will naturally follow, just like Richard Florida said they would. However, the connection between the success of Bilbao and Gehry’s Guggenheim might be more tenuous than many have assumed. Sevcik showed one graph charting the annual arrival of passengers streaming through the Bilbao airport — the “gotcha” part is that the big spike occurred not when the Guggenheim opened, but a few years later, when Europe’s budget airlines, such as Ryan Air and Air Berlin, started flying to Bilbao. Moreover, Spain was already investing in new cultural and business developments that may have contributed to the rise of Bilbao anyway. And what may work in Bilbao may not necessarily present a universal model for civic success.
Sevcik posed several challenges to the accepted wisdom about the impact of the creative industries on cities. Along with questioning the Bilbao Effect, he targeted the value of the “creative industries” themselves. He posited that the creative industries are actually innovation-averse, citing several studies that argue that, due to chronic under-funding, “once [creative industries] find a formula [of] how they can sell a product – a special type of website or special strategy – they tend then to sell the same thing over and over.” Comparing the culture sector to others such as biotech or the financial industry, Sevcik claimed that the latter is more creative and innovative than the culture industries.
At the core of Sevcik’s worries is this new alchemy whereby one creates a financially vibrant city merely by boosting art. According to the numbers, it is still very much the other way around and, historically, the most important art cities have always been the world’s financial capitals. He admonishes the artists who complain about rising (or already stratospheric) rents in cities like London, New York, Tokyo and Milan and recalled a discussion he had a few years ago about Berlin, during which he pointed out, “If Berlin continues to be important as an art and creative city, it will be the first time in the history of cities that a city which is economically totally unimportant plays a creative and artistic role over certain years.” When a member of the audience asked about the current trend in the US of artists migrating to cities like Detroit because of low rents, Sevcik warned that it might actually be dangerous to even do so because in the long-term there is not an existing infrastructure there to support them.
Sevcik came equipped with an answer to his critique of the superficial cultural fix. Education, he declared, is the area that deserves more focus and which has the greatest potential to truly develop culture, creativity and, as a result, cities. It may not promise immediate, visible gains that officials can point to as achievements and “progress,” but a more bottom-up approach that seeks to mend and change the actual cultural fabric of the city is what seems to be in order.
From Sevcik’s talk, it appears that proponents of “cultural capital” could also perhaps use a refresher course in the actual studies and books they cite to champion their cause, or their new Frank Gehry symphony hall (during Art Basel, Miami inaugurated its new Gehry, the New World Symphony building). Theories of the economic benefits of the creative class may describe the qualities a city must have to serve as an incubator for innovation and success, but rarely do they provide ready-made mechanisms for that incubation. Without an infrastructure to give rise to the organic development of creativity and innovation, a city may simply turn into an empty shell, without the talent it covets and needs to sustain it.
Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. She lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Tel Aviv and Rockaway (Bauhaus heaven and unapologetically homely beach town, respectively). You can check out more of her stuff at Ida Post.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.