Recently, while emptying some boxes of stuff that I had packed up from my former office on the U.S. Oval, I found copies of two periodicals, the Economic Development Journal from the winter of 2009 and a 2011 copy of Urban Land Institute’s Urban Land magazine. They both contained articles on the role arts and culture play in economic development.
They seemed timely because of the resurgence in interest in creating a vibrant cultural community in Plattsburgh.
The articles ask the question, is investing in the arts, as it relates to place-making and economic development, a good investment?
The Urban Land Institute’s David Malmuth thinks so. In the Urban Land magazine article, Malmuth wrote, “I make the case that a strategic investment in arts and culture initiatives, whether conceived by the public or private sectors, can have very significant impacts in economic vitality, jobs and revenues.”
It’s a change in thinking from traditional economic development, which usually focuses on export-based industries that bring new revenues into a community. While most of us can appreciate the intrinsic benefits of the arts, we don’t always view them as an economic driver. We tend to view the arts as an “amenity.”
Should we view them as an economically important industry sector?
Perhaps we should, given that a key component of many economically successful rural communities is the presence of a vibrant arts community. Around the country, rural communities are beginning to recognize that “the arts” (broadly defined) need to be part of any economic-development strategy.
The topic becomes more intriguing considering that the article in the Economic Development Journal made the case that innovation and creativity are becoming more important to regional economic development, so schools should be reintroducing arts education into their curriculum. My friend, Amanda, the neuroscientist, confirmed for me that there is a strong link between arts education and cognitive development, loosely defined as thinking, problem-solving, understanding concepts and processing information.
According to a study released by the Conference Board, an independent business membership organization created to help its members understand critical business issues, the four attributes of cognitive development are all traits that employers say they covet in potential employees.
Consider all this in the context that the creative economy is rapidly replacing the knowledge economy.
So, if the creative economy (meaning that knowledge, entrepreneurship, innovation technology and collaboration fuel economic growth) is the future, how can we better prepare students to participate in it?
Many schools are preparing students by focusing on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) as a way to transition students successfully to post-secondary education and/or the world of work. We need schools that graduate students with relevant skills that employers value; that’s how the whole STEM thing began, by asking employers what it is that graduates needed to be able to do.
However, there’s an increasing body of research that suggests that while STEM is necessary, it isn’t sufficient.
Forward thinking educators are proposing to add the “arts” to the STEM curriculum and to change the acronym to STEAM. But how to get the arts back into the curriculum in a meaningful way given the fact that art and music programs are always among the first things cut in times of tight budgets.
The most effective way may be to emulate the successful strategy used by STEM proponents. They made a convincing case demonstrating the clear connection between STEM and the future of our economy.
STEAM proponents need to make an equally persuasive case arguing, as Harvey White, a co-founder of QUALCOMM, does that:
— Art education is the key to creativity;
— Creativity is an essential component of innovation;
— Innovation is needed to create new industries; and
— New industries are the basis of future economic well-being.
It won’t be an easy argument to win. Nevertheless, it’s an argument that needs to be won.
Because other countries, most noticeably China and Korea, are adopting national education policies connecting creativity and innovation through increased arts courses, a “national policy” — think about that. They clearly understand that the arts, once thought to be luxuries that thrived in prosperous economies, may actually be conditions of prosperity.
As American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, said, “The game is changing. It isn’t just about math and science anymore. It’s about creativity, imagination and above all innovation.”
It’s about an education containing a greater focus on the arts.
Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation of Clinton County.