I Don’t Remember The Nest Being So Nice

There is potential that cities across the country can ultimately benefit from this economic downturn if they play their cards right and tap into those returning home to help contribute to raising the quality of life. This at least, according to a piece by Will Doig on Salon.com.

According to Doig, young people who have moved to the big cities around the country like NYC, LA and Chicago, find the cost of living to be too high and returning to the places they left, often to start their own businesses.

“Or as urban analyst Aaron Renn puts it: “New York City is like a giant refinery for human capital … Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies.”

And it exports them in droves. People associate brain drain with the agricultural and industrial Midwest. But most years, when foreign immigration is excluded, it’s places like New York and Chicago that lose the most residents. Chicago loses nearly 81 people a day to out-migration, more than any other metro area in America. Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, nearly 100,000 people left the New York area. Los Angeles lost almost 50,000.”

Of course, this doesn’t diminish the fact that a whole lot of people are returning home to live a fairly depressing unemployed existence. But according to Doig, in returning home, these people bring expectations of products and services they experienced in the big cities, paving the way for these same products and creating demand for business and government services. They also tell their friends about the great environment in the “nests” to which they have returned attracting more people there.

The reason why I mention cities need to play their cards right is because they have a role in perpetuating an image of their cities as vibrant, interesting places to live. According to Doig’s piece, the reputation perpetuated about cities belie the actual conditions in those cities. (My emphasis)

“The mesofacts say that Charlotte [North Carolina] is a boom town and Portland [Oregon] is cool.” In reality, the economies of both Charlotte and Portland have been struggling for a while now. Yet new residents still flock to these places because the mesofacts tell them they’re hot, when it’s actually Pittsburgh they should be looking to, where per capita income has risen faster than any other major Midwestern city’s, and the unemployment rate has been lower than the national average since 2006.

“I’ve been saying to people in Pittsburgh for years, ‘What Seattle was in the ’90s, you’re going to be that big.’ And they’d laugh. But the data show it,” says Russell. “The editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette keeps saying the biggest problem in Pittsburgh is brain drain. And I’m like, you’re 20 years too late. Why are you torpedoing your own in-migration? When you’re running around saying you have a brain drain problem, what you’re saying to the world is, ‘We’re a loser.’ But if you can convince people the data are true as opposed to the mesofacts, then you open the sluicegates.”

If Doig is correct about all this, it could be the time for arts organizations to step up and take advantage of their trend. As Scott Walters and many other have noted, artists flock to cities like NYC, Chicago and LA convinced they can make their careers there. This is due not only to the alluring glow of the lights of Broadway, but to the practices of many regional theatres that often do their casting in major cities forcing actors to move there if they want to work back home.

This isn’t just the case for theatre either, Trey McIntyre confounded everyone when he chose to base his dance company in Boise, ID rather than one of the major cities. Artists aren’t just seduced away from home by the mythology of these cities, there are very practical reasons to move there if you want an opportunity to practice.

But as I said, arts organizations have an opportunity to reverse this trend by focusing on hiring locally and then getting the local arts community to tell their friends in the big cities why they should move back. For many of those who left, artistic spaces that seemed provincial and under equipped when they left may suddenly seem luxurious after working and living in dingy, holes in the wall in the big city. Yet they have also probably seen and done some pretty artistically interesting things.

As people move back, the arts organizations can tap into the returnees’ experiences interacting with the current thought and aesthetics churning in the big cities and adapt them as their own. You are never going to overcome the allure of going off to the golden cities, but by providing a reason to return, many places across the country can embrace the situation and leverage it to their own advantage.

Thus Rises The Individual Curator and Commissioner

There was an intriguing piece on Wired last week (h/t Thomas Cott) about an alternative approach to funding events via Kickstarter. Andy Baio talks about funding record projects, conferences and festivals by essentially lining up the speakers/performers/resources and then seeing if anyone is interested in buying tickets to the proposed events/project. If there isn’t enough interest, it doesn’t happen.

What was most interesting to me is how this type of approach really empowers an individual to curate a project. You may not be an artist yourself, but you have an idea of what combination of artists and concepts might be compelling and then can set out to bring it together.

While this is sort of my job already, there is something of an expectation that there will be balance in those I invite. I have a certain responsibility to make sure my facility and events are being run in a fiscally responsible manner. An individual isn’t necessarily saddled by those expectations. They can do a project as a one off and no one is concerned about whether their activities are serving the needs of the community.

Makes me wonder if this might be a potential mode of operation for the future. One of many that might replace the non-profit arts organization.

If taken at its face, this approach seems shift some burden to the artists/speakers being invited. If the event doesn’t happen, will they get paid? While Baio doesn’t explicitly mention it, I am guessing you would have to provide some sort of guarantee of payment to the artist/speaker regardless of whether the performance happened or not. Baio alluded to this in a couple places, including his requirements for these projects.

Projects like these have three big requirements.

Strong, achievable concept. Commissioned works should be scoped down to something realistic, because you’re paying for their time, but high-concept enough to capture the excitement of other fans.

Organizer. The funding may come from the crowd, but there needs to be a single person managing the project and handling all the logistics and small details.

Due diligence. The organizer will need a firm agreement from the artist, committing to a timeline, payment, and any other demands. Also, if the project results in a tangible work, determine who owns the rights to it before you start raising money.

While most artists and speakers like being paid, they like to be seen and heard even more so there is also some incentive for them to help promote the cause. It may not occur too frequently at present, but it could certainly become commonplace if the practice of running a project up the flag pole becomes more wide spread.

The other thing, of course, is that it turns your audience into much more active advocates for the work because there is a possibility it won’t happen. We know that many audiences today, especially among the younger generation, tend to wait to see if something more interesting might come along before buying a ticket. Since the performance will occur regardless of their commitment, there is no incentive to commit. The threat that the event might not happen can garner an increased investment in its success even if it is only that people continually check the progress of the funding to see if the event will happen.

A commenter to the piece pointed out a service in Brazil which rewards the early adopters. It sells refundable tickets to a show until the minimum is met. Once the event has secured its funding, it starts selling non-refundable tickets and apparently starts reimbursing the purchasers of the refundable tickets up to the their full purchase price.

Manholes As Destination Tourism (Seriously)

In answer to the perennial question about how the arts can show their value to the community, I came across an answer/inspiration in the form of the Flickr group, Japanese Manhole Covers. There are nearly 3000 pictures of some amazingly artistic manhole covers.

With NYC looking to ban big sugary drinks and Disney announcing that they will restrict junk food ads, it occurs to me that a constructive approach to fighting obesity would be to commission these artists to make manhole covers.

People would get out and start walking around in an attempt to see them all. Heck, people may even include a manhole tour as part of their tourism. I am sure someone will develop a social media app that maps out the locations and people would compete to check in at each of them on sites like Foursquare. (Actually, looks like there is an iphone app for Japan.) Just to keep things interesting, the public works department can switch them around every so often so that people would have to contribute to a remapping effort.

Check out the Japanese covers, some of them are pretty amazing and show a lot of investment and pride in culture and community.

(Clicking on image will take you to the specific photographer’s page rather than the larger pool of manhole photos)

Osaka Castle Artwork on Manhole cover - Osaka, Japan
Osaka Castle Artwork on Manhole cover photo credit: Neerav Blatt

What Would Happen To Wine If Everyone Wanted Free Grape Juice

Hat tip to Adam Thurman for distributing the link to an interesting piece about devaluing artistic content by Todd Henry. Henry wonders about the fate of artists when increasingly the view seems to be that content should be free.

“This means that artists have to shift their business models to give away (or make available for cheap) their main art, and instead focus on selling scarce peripherals. Authors sell lectures. No longer able to make a living from recording, bands sell tickets to concerts and survive off of merchandise sales. Content creators give away their content in order to gain eyeballs and ears,…

The problem is…some people are just great at being artists. They aren’t great at business models, distribution or line extensions. They just want to make great, valuable art and sell it at a fair price. What do these people do?

Would we have had The Beatles if they’d been told, “Never mind spending years in the studio crafting your records. Those things are just promotional fodder to sell these snazzy Sgt. Pepper t-shirts and posters. You should focus instead on how you’re going to monetize.”

I am currently exploring bringing a show, which heretofore has only existed on YouTube, to our stage. The creative team is actually excited that they might not have to cover most of their expenses out of pocket for once.

Until Todd Henry pointed out that increasingly it is ancillary products rather than the artistic product supporting the creation, it never occurred to me what a bizarre situation it is. These guys from the YouTube show I am talking to mentioned the same thing–T shirt sales helped defray some of their expenses.

But there are a million stories in the naked cit.. -erm, YouTube and not everyone is going to be paid for them. We already know that places like YouTube are eroding the concept that you should have to pay for content. People will clearly continue to create content and try to support it however they can. I don’t think an effort to inspire a shift in attitude is going to gain much traction.

Though who knows, I hear Comcast cable is trying to get people used to the idea of paying for bandwidth consumption. As much as I am resistant to the idea, it could change attitudes about paying for content as well.

To extend the question Todd asks about killing the golden goose, I wonder how many creatives will persist until their abilities mature if few are willing to pay for the content. That might be the real long term threat.

The guys I am trying to present are young and their show is fun. But what happens in a few years when they settle down and look to raise a family and they decide they don’t have time to create content alongside their regular job and family? The fact artists have never been paid well has always been a problem, but if even the possibility of a pittance wanes then unremunerated recognition becomes the only motivator to create.

Artists and other creative types need time to allow their skills to develop. Ira Glass said as much in the speech I linked to last week. As a country, we need creatives to mature into their abilities rather than quit early on.