Julia Dixon | Creativity at Work: Arts vibrancy ranking more than just a number

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NORTH ADAMS — The chances that you have engaged with Berkshire County's creative economy are pretty good — whether you toured an historic estate during a first-time visit, landed a job with a creative manufacturer, hired a commercial artist, or went on a museum field trip in grade school.

Those of us who care about arts and culture know how important it is to quality of life, and those of us who work in the creative sector know how important it is to economic growth.

The Berkshire Creative Economy Report, which turned 10 this year, marked the first time that the creative economy in the Berkshires was measured and assigned a value. The report tallied the number of self-employed artists, commercial enterprises, and non-profit cultural institutions in the region in 2007 and "found more than 6,100 jobs generated by the creative economy sector in Berkshire County." Researched and written by Mount Auburn Associates, the report goes on to describe the direct financial impacts this creative activity has on the overall economy.

In the decade that followed, organizations like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Barrington Stage Company, and the Berkshire Film & Media Collaborative quantified their own economic impact through commissioned reports and in-house number crunching. Berkshire Creative, which was formed shortly after The Berkshire Creative Economy Report was released, educated the community about the importance of the creative economy and advocated for the development of creative industries across the county. 1Berkshire continues to support creative businesses which contribute to the growth of the sector. But it wasn't until 2015 that Berkshire County's creative economy was contextualized against similar sized communities across the United States.

On April 24, the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University released its third annual Arts Vibrancy Index, which measures and ranks the most artistically active communities in the nation. Their decisions are based on several key statistics including a number of arts providers (artists, organizations, businesses, and employees), dollars (revenue and expenses), and government support (number and sizes of state and federal funds distributed) per capita.

This year's index places Pittsfield as the number one most vibrant medium-sized arts community in America. Although this may induce a swell of pride in Pittsfield-based readers, NCAR defines a community as an urban core and the integrated community surrounding it. So although the report is attempting to analyze and compare cities, Pittsfield — with its population cited in the report as 127,828 — means Berkshire County.

NCAR's 2015 and 2016 indexes ranked Berkshire County seventh and 12th, respectively, among other arts-vibrant small-to-mid-sized communities in the nation, but this year, small and medium communities have been separated. Not only did Berkshire County find itself in a different category than smaller, higher ranked western cities, it edged past long-standing competitors Santa Fe, N.M. and San Rafael, Calif. and shot to the top of the list.

Being No. 1 is more than an excuse to boast. This ranking demonstrates how far we have come as a creative community. The Berkshires' creative class has become more productive and collaborative than ever, and the scope of our creative economy continues to widen. Independent arts activity is booming as artists in all genres move to the Berkshires and start projects or become entrepreneurs. Conversely, large cultural institutions are not only thriving but growing, reinvesting in their cities and towns through renovation and expansion projects.

Those of us in the creative economy field, myself included, have long touted this "critical mass" of creatives as crucial to our identity, social vitality, and economic health. However, while we have dutifully pushed out the findings revealed in The Berkshire Creative Economy Report, the data driving the results at this point is outdated. Additionally, the creative sector is still too often overlooked as a viable, respectable industry which bolsters other businesses, produces quality jobs, and has value beyond tourism. The NCAR ranking is an objective measurement that not only proves our size but demonstrates how unique our arts saturation truly is. Perhaps now, given this top national status, our messages that Creativity Lives Here and Arts Matter will, once again, carry a new weight.

A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia Dixon is a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist who lives in North Adams.


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