OP-ED: The Role of Creativity in Los Angeles County’s Economy

The Dream of Simultaneous Connections on Ocean Boulevard (top left); The Cape, the Bay, and the Clouds of Magellan in Downtown (bottom left); History and Industry Of Long Beach in Landmark Square (top center); “Dino Soiree,” Ascent of the Pterodactyl (bottom center); Lobby of the Floating Ceilings in the Krinski Building (right)

The value of art and design’s cultural significance is a redundant point to make. We know this. But what many do not know (or simply refuse to acknowledge) is the role the arts bring to public and private sectors which is essential in advancing the economy, education, and social health.

The reason I decided to write this article is because of the overwhelming amount of commentary on the Post — both pejorative and positive — in regards to the role art plays in the social fabric. Whether it was Greggory Moore’s piece about a public piece of art in-and-out within days or the installation of a piece along the Promenade, there is one particular form of questioning that never ceases to pass by: how much did this type of thing cost and why are we wasting money on something which, according to the beliefs of some commenters, inherently doesn’t provide anything monetarily in return?

Bluntly and frankly put, this is almost entirely devoid of evidentiary backing. In fact, when the Republican Study Committee had proposed last year its zeroing out of financial support to the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), even Colin Powell stated on CNN, “You can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the national endowment for the humanities or the arts – nice political chatter, but that doesn’t do it.”

And there’s a reason for this type of sentiment: for every buck given to these endowments, it returns $18.75. That’s right, for investments handed to the NEA and NEH, it returns your money by 1800%.

And that auctioning art endeavor, where the nouveau-riche are becoming more and more present? The emerging economic powers of the world are mirroring their emerging artist presence: the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, and Russian arts have exploded on the scene lately. The quadruple auctioning powerhouse of Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Doyle, and Bonhams generated $120 million last month during Asia Week in New York City — alone. As Jim Hedges, president of Mortgage finance told Forbes last year, “No one puts $1 million into art if it isn’t an investment — it’s not a consumption item. Anyone who says it isn’t an investment is being disingenuous.”

Let’s talk about that investment and make it a bit more micro, focusing on our County of Los Angeles. According to last year’s study by OTIS College of Art and Design, the creative economy is the county’s 4th largest employer in a sea of 66 employer sectors, providing 300,800 jobs directly involved in creative industries. And before you think it’s entirely the entertainment industry, you’re misguided: that accounts for about 40%, while the other 60% lies in a vast array of areas including arts educations, visual and performing arts, toys, home furnishings, interior design, and graphic design, amongst others. As its own machine, the creative economy brings some $115 billion annually in revenue to the county and its residents.

I can go on and on (the largest segment of self-employed people are artists, writers, and performers; for every ten creative jobs directly created, nine are indirectly created…) but the question of why is just as fascinating as the question of what art does for the economy, particularly here in L.A. County. And I believe the answer lies in innovation and the brain.

I had the pleasure of hearing neuroscientist and philosopher Jonah Lehrer’s keynote speech, “This Is Your Brain on Theatre,” the Theatre Communication Group’s annual conference (via an illegal recording on a friend’s phone because she knew of my obsession with Mr. Lehrer’s research about the relationship between science and the humanities).

The basic thrust of his phenomenal presentation was this: theatre and the arts in general remain absolutely essential in the age of the iPhone. He spoke of children who, delaying their gratification, have higher test scores. Why? Because they can control the spotlight of their intention better. Being smart is not having a larger working memory, but being able to properly control our attention –- more important than ever in this era of information, for it is better to have the ability to parse the world, controlling one’s focus on the most relevant parts, rather than simply knowing more parts.

Art, in this sense, builds the focus muscle in the age of infinite, useless information. Paying attention to art, according to Lehrer, especially difficult and complex art, is the most effective way to improve your attention in all tasks, especially those not within art. Art is the most powerful cognitive workout because of the layers of plot, theme, language, intention, subjectivity, conceptual framework, origin, history… When viewing art, our minds move between local comprehension and global understanding which, in turn, develops empathy -– a characteristic not only respected but needed in the world of free trade, for compassion has practical consequences; it’s not just charity. Empathy through another’s story, which is what art really is, helps us with general problem solving.

Oftentimes the hardest part of creativity is finding the problem, not finding the solution. This is creativity and, more importantly, it cultivates innovation. Why are some cities more innovative than others, Lehrer? Why does the city of San Francisco have the most patents generated than any other city in the United States? Because San Francisco found a way to mitigate its isolation. Cities that invite direct mingling of diverse persons in parks or on sidewalks create or through public art create what Lehrer calls “intimate inefficiencies” -– and these random encounters yield more innovations. In other words, mutual incomprehension leads to innovative solutions. The unplanned nature of the urban ballet is like an email to a stranger: we need the spontaneous sidewalk encounters. The act of explaining what you think to someone from a different background causes creativity. A diverse team is more successful because we are forced to explain ourselves, and by doing so, reach a deeper understanding.

Art is not just a cultural bonus; it is essential in order for our society to continue forward with both industry and knowledge.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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