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Arts and Culture: Human Qualities as Economic Engines

A little less than 60 years after the adoption of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which states unequivocally that everyone has the right

‘freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’ and the right to ‘the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author,’

the issue of cultural diversity is front and centre in the international arena.

Last year, for instance, almost 3.5 million people converged on the city of Barcelona for a novel event that is likely to be repeated in years to come. Thousands of artists and intellectuals from Spain and around the world were invited to present hundreds of shows, exhibitions and conferences dealing with three main themes: cultural diversity, sustainable development and conditions for peace. During the 141 days it lasted, visitors were immersed in an atmosphere of festivities, reflection and dialogue aimed at making them aware of what they can accomplish at the dawn of this new century.

Here in Canada, the debate on new cultural issues has begun in earnest. Questions normally addressed in universities and the corridors of power are now discussed by cultural leaders and by citizens who make up our vibrant and increasingly influential civil society. While it is true that our approaches and practices are still imbued by certain perceptions of arts and culture which navigate among:

  • elitism (Art with a capital “A,” accessible only to educated and receptive minds),
  • romanticism (art created by inspired artists who are suffering, misunderstood, and inevitably underpaid), and
  • utilitarianism (art that feels good, cures all ills, distracts us from life’s hardships or generates short-term profits),

we are witnessing a questioning of the assumptions that too often replace real reflection.

We must bear in mind that in the space of a few decades, we went from a situation where artistic and cultural creation, production and distribution almost completely eluded the realm of economics to one where they are at the very heart of strategies to reconfigure our economies.

Unfortunately, efforts to develop public support systems have been accompanied by statements feeding the notion of a welfare relationship, of condescension, almost charity, between those who manage the economy and those responsible for artistic creation.

In the 1970s, with the collapse of whole segments of economic activity based on natural resources, the impact of art and culture on the growth of the workforce became evident. Cultural industries, big festivals and prestigious exhibitions became viewed as levers of economic prosperity.

In the late 1980s, echoes of the American and European experiments in urban revitalization through culture reverberated in Canada. Art and culture were routinely called to the aid of ailing downtown cores or neighbourhoods torn apart by violence and poverty. An awareness of the key role of the arts in the daily lives of the First Nations and of how much they contribute to the health and resilience of communities was also beginning to emerge.

In the late 1990s, ideas about creative industries and cities emerged first in Britain and then in several European countries, changing our understanding of the relationship between art, heritage, culture and the economy.

In 2002, the extensive media coverage of Richard Florida’s work on knowledge workers and the appeal of cultural life in major urban centres, drew the attention of many politicians from all levels of government and captured the imagination of business leaders. Florida’s famous bohemian index that establishes a correlation between the number of artists in a city and the attraction and retention of talent needed for growth of technology intensive economic activities, created a sort of fashion that, like all fashions, carries the very best and the very banal, the sophisticated and the commonplace. Over the past 25 years in Canada, we have developed many economic arguments to justify greater government support for the arts, cultural industries and the protection and development of our heritage, both tangible and intangible. The three economic arguments most often invoked are job creation, tourism and increased tax revenue.

Since 2002, in Canada, governments at all levels spent in the neighbourhood of $7.1 billion in public funds to support 740,000 jobs (including 131,000 artists) and to protect economic spin-offs estimated at $26 billion. It would be unreasonable to suggest that the traditional economic arguments be dropped. Obviously, it would also be an exaggeration to claim that cultural discourse since the early 1980s has been primarily concerned with economic issues. Culture’s contributions to identity, a sense of belonging, social cohesion, democratic life and international prestige have been mentioned in support of the development of a sector that 75 percent of Canadians consider important to their quality of life (Decima 2002).

Culture should no longer be understood uniquely as a specific sector of activity with its own jobs, organizations, funding agencies and regulation. Instead, it should be understood as what it is by definition – a dimension of the lives of individuals and communities. The creativity of human beings, like that of organizations and especially that of cities and nations, is incubated, stimulated or provoked by the vibrancy and authenticity of the artistic and cultural life that inhabits them. On the individual level, many scientific studies prove that knowledge of dance develops attributes of creative thought, including originality and ability for abstraction. We know that theatre teaches us how to understand complex situations and incites us to reflect on the motivations of our fellow human beings. We also know that learning music increases the capacity for reasoning and makes use of abstract thinking needed in mathematics.

Authentic cultural development must engage citizens who no longer wish to be regarded as passive consumers of culture but who instead want to be active participants in the cultural life of their cities and country. New cultural policies can no longer position citizens as mere beneficiaries of proposed measures. They must take into account their potential and capacity to become more creative. If Canada is to continue to play an exemplary role, we must not move forward timidly, but rather adopt an attitude that opens up new alliances between artists, citizens, economic and political decision-makers, the health and education sectors, and community entrepreneurs.

(First published in Policy Options, March-April 2005.)