Julia Dixon | Creativity at Work: What those big numbers really mean

NORTH ADAMS — Last year was a big year for big numbers:

$10.5 million.

$50.8 million.

$104 million.

$125 million.

The first number, $10.5 million, was cited by the Berkshire Eagle in an August 2017 article as the amount that DownStreet Art events have generated for the city of North Adams since they were launched in 2008. That next figure, $50.8 million, is the total economic impact that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is calculated to have had on the region since its operations expanded last year. The $104 million figure was cited in May 2017 as the current annual economic impact that Tanglewood generates. And, the $125 million is the most modest economic impact projection for the yet-to-be-built Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum that is proposed for North Adams, according to a June 2017 report.

These four numbers were provided by Stephen Sheppard, professor of economics at Williams College and director of the Center for Creative Development, a research center that calculates the economic impacts of arts activity on communities. Sheppard generates predictions for clients, many of them Berkshire-based cultural institutions, in order to justify the investment to private and public funders and help frame the scope of a project's impact on other businesses and services.

Overall economic impact calculations are incredibly important, But they can also be misleading.

In my experience, there are two kinds of impressions these numbers can give. One is a belief that the creative economy is doing so well that it doesn't need any more help or financial support. The other is a suspicion of accuracy or disbelief in the impacts as observed on a micro level.

Among the arguments against arts-driven economic development strategy are that construction jobs are one-time jobs, cultural positions are part-time, nonprofit jobs are low-paying, hospitality jobs are low-quality, storefronts are still vacant, costs are rising, and economic inequality remains high.

These arguments are not entirely wrong, and many economic impact reports do not address these issues.

But I don't want to dissuade readers from feeling pride in our creative economy or doubting Sheppard's research. What I want to do is translate the information in a way that is relatable. I'm more interested in economic impacts that can be seen and felt, particularly by an average resident, as opposed to impacts that can be measured and analyzed by professionals like me.

Berkshire County's creative economy is anchored by large cultural institutions that create a different economic dynamic.

Let's look at North Adams as an example.

The city is home to a campus of mill buildings that once belonged to the Sprague Electric Company. In 1966, Sprague employed over 4,000 workers in a community of 18,000 people. Growth happened quickly. The workers supported a network of other businesses and services by spending their earnings in the community every day. Main Street was crowded with residents who were, for better or worse, reliant on a single employer.

Today, Mass MoCA occupies the sprawling mill campus. In stark contrast to Sprague, the museum employs about 150 workers in a community of 13,000 but brings roughly 200,000 visitors to the city annually.

Growth is happening, but much more slowly. Cultural jobs aren't as prevalent but cultural activities are plentiful, contributing to quality of life and changing the city's value proposition. Entrepreneurship and freelancing are high as creatives carve out their own space in the northern Berkshire business community. Investments are being made in other properties that will produce jobs in ancillary industries such as hospitality, retail, real estate, construction, and human services. The city's improving reputation is starting to attract new residents which is demonstrated by the near-stabilization of the population.

These effects were not achieved overnight.

The best way to gauge whether the creative economy has had a positive effect on North Adams is not to compare today's Main Street with that of the 1960s, but to compare it to the Main Street of the 1990s. It has required 20 years of steady effort from Mass MoCA, DownSteet Art, and other creative people and programs for downtown to see an increase in foot traffic, storefront businesses, social activities, and visitor spending.

For many North Adams-based businesses, an increase in regular customers is a more uplifting indicator of the creative economy's impact than those $10.5 million or $50.8 million figures.

When individuals, companies, and communities decide to invest in the creative economy, they are investing in the long game. It can be hard for those outside of the creative economy to trust that that these investments will reap rewards for them, but they do. Just give it time.

A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia     Dixon is chairwoman of the North Adams Public Art Commission, and a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist.


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