Thomas Sevcik: Why Art and the Creative Class will Never Save Cities

Art Salon | Urbanism | Why Art and the Creative Class will Never Save Cities from Art Basel on Vimeo.

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.

8 Responses to “Thomas Sevcik: Why Art and the Creative Class will Never Save Cities”

  1. Great recap. I applaud the fact that the contemporary art community is engaging questions of urban competitiveness and perhaps even economic development. But I think Sevcik lets Richard Florida off the hook a little too easily when he places all the blame for the superficial, short-sighted ways in which the creative class argument is appropriated and deployed by city governments exclusively on the shoulders of civic leaders. It’s easy to turn a theory into a skin-deep policy if that theory is, to begin with, skin-deep.

  2. Carol says:

    I agree with Thomas that education is the most critical ingredient in a city’s success. But if a city educates its people and then cannot keep them for lack of quality of place and quality of opportunity, it is not getting the benefit of its investment in education.

    Art and artists can add significantly to a community’s quality of place. I can’t imagine Chicago as a great city without its artists and its theaters, museums, jazz scene, the symphony, and great public art (which only skims the surface). A survey conducted this summer by the Chicago Tribune and WGN found that Chicagoans, when asked what they loved most about the city, named art and culture right at the top of the list, second only to convenient transportation. Art and culture trumped the lakefront, restaurants, and ethnic diversity. (And all of those items ran far ahead of sports!)

    If we are going to use an economic argument for investing in art and culture, we need to keep the critical value of “quality of place” in mind and be honest about how art and culture can deliver that.

  3. Very interesting post and I absolutely agree with the point of education. Interestingly, I had the opportunity to speak to Phil Wood of Comedia earlier this month and he echoed some of the thoughts reflected here, especially not believing in easy and quick wins for cities:

  4. maybe it has nothing to do with economics?….some things are done because of the human spirit.

  5. Jon says:

    This seems to be the beginning of a nuanced discussion of the creative class, and how it is actually attracted and fostered. Building a single, iconic cultural building should never be considered adequate or appropriate. Bilbao and the region did many things as well as build an art museum, in order to refocus and build their economy.

    Art art culture can also be fostered by low dollar, incremental methods. The ‘big idea’ approach is often counterproductive. It’s far better to grow from local resources, even if those may be small and require long nurture. Major educational improvements often do require expensive new facilities and the hiring of new and more highly paid educators. But art and education are linchpins for a successful city.

    I would prefer to see creativity focused on the arts and cultural sectors. Too much of our present economy is suffering precisely from the excessive ‘creativity’ of the financial sector. While the financial sector has highly paid staff positions, it has also doubled its workforce and portion of GNP in the past thirty years, without producing commensurate benefit to national wealth. Although highly compensated, it is possible to see the financial sector as a parasitic, net negative force in the development of national wealth.

  6. Peter says:

    Another take on Richard Florida’s approach, is that it is pop-proto-urbanism. He does not get down and deal with the realities of the spatial behaviour and structure of a place, as well as those other physical influences. He stays out there in airey-fairy land of loose words and interesting concepts, where statistics tend towards the damn lies end of the spectrum rather than useful fact …

    If he would engage with the nature of the city, and multitude of influences, it would be interesting to see where the substance lies in his pop-psych head.

  7. martha rosler says:

    It is not my impression that most cities taking creative-class theorizing to heart are doing so through the construction of architectural wonders or art museums but rather through trying to attract high tech industries (cf. the Netherlands). The creative-class thesis does not address art or artists particularly, nor do city planners, except for those hoping to attract small-shop art production as likely to produce inch-by-inch gentrification of distressed neighborhoods.
    Let’s remember that Florida’s categories come from the government’s standard occupational categories, and his creative class is a catchy name for knowledge workers or symbolic analysts.
    All serious theorists agree that educational level correlates most highly with a city’s economic status & growth potential, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd tier cities that are interested in grasping at the creative-class straw.
    Art and culture are still just “amenities” to most city planners, although 1st tier cities like Chicago, New York, LA, & many European cities of this rank must maintain them to keep the rich happy, thereby pleasing many of the lower-wage earners as well. But fine symphonies and museums do not trump economics—case in point, Detroit.

  8. Axelletess says:

    Without saving the city, I definitely had the feeling after spending 7 weeks in Berlin for a collaborative project, that the creative scene Keeps Berlin on the European Map and actually makes it very attractive for many young people. Your amazing post made me thing about the new L.A Art world and why it could represent the future of the megalopolis .
    “there is no question that in the last few years, a new sense of manifest destiny has electrified the city’s art scene. If art is in essence a conversation, Los Angeles, at the very least, is an opportunity for a new way of talking. It sounds completely different than anywhere else. It sounds very much like the future.”

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