The Case For Culture

Chrysler, MOCA, NEON, ViBe, the Hermitage; the list goes on. Art is everywhere lately. Art, and culture more broadly, seem to be the new focus of many community activists and developers. It might be easy to dismiss street art and museums simply as neighborhood amenities or aesthetics, but that barely scratches the surface. We live in a world that is more connected than ever, a world where everyone seems concerned with the economy, technology, business and all those ‘serious’ topics that dominate our news. These topics are typically the quantifiable pieces of our economy. All the attention that street art, live music, museums, festivals, food and everything else that culture encompasses is getting indicates it must do more than just make our lives a little more enjoyable, right? Yet, how do we account for the intangibility of culture and creativity? Is there really room for art in the discussion of our economy? Does culture even matter to our collective economic performance?

Surprisingly (or not), culture does play a pretty important role in our economy. What makes culture important in an economic sense is not exactly intuitive. Culture is nearly synonymous with the economic pillar known as human capital. In academic circles human capital is blandly measured as years of schooling. But the truth is, human capital is more fittingly defined as human value. In reality human capital is not just education, but experience, expression, skills, and creative thinking.

Culture is not only the product of our human capital, but the act of exercising it as well. Cultural elements in our community force us to think in different ways, confronting us with profound ideas. The novel and creative things we encounter literally force us to use our brain in a new way. These exercises of mental capacity and outside-the-box thinking subtly condition us to being more creative.

Just because art and cultural elements may make us more creative, does that have an impact on our economy? Well, it seems obvious to me that if I were an employer with a choice between two individuals who are exactly the same on all aspects of background and education, the more creative person is more valuable. Whether it’s by creating more innovative products, producing stand out marketing advertisements, or simply providing a unique perspective on a problem, the more creative person is who I’d want on my team. Even though that creative advantage is unquantifiable (and definitely intangible) in economic terms, it is certainly a beneficial edge. Thus, the main economic value that community art and culture provide is by enhancing all of our individual human capital through creativity.

What’s really fascinating is how clusters of culture (and human capital similarly) tend to attract more of the same. In this case the old adage rings true: birds of a feather flock together. Creative people like to go where other creative people are. Highly educated people tend to cluster to where other highly educated people are. The case for culture, then, is this: supplying more cultural elements in our communities not only enhances our current stock of human capital, but serves to attract more valuable talent as well. In fact, if that logic follows we could benefit from a virtuous cycle where clustered creative people make each other more creative, attracting more creative people, which makes the community more creative and so on.

The reverse is also true and it’s called brain drain. Community culture helps us attract and enhance valuable talent. Creative talent that won’t soon be replaced by automation and artificial intelligence, making it crucially important to maintaining our economic competitiveness.

Yes, the art is pretty, the food is tasty, and the festivals are fun, but our culture is much more than that. It’s also an investment that will pay dividends to our community for generations to come.

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