When the mayor of Indianapolis asked corporate executives what could be done to make the city more appealing to business, their advice surprised him. They told him to boost the arts.
Mayor Bart Peterson says he was already a big supporter of the arts when he was first elected in 1999, so while the reply caught him off guard, it was just what he wanted to hear.
"The CEO of one of the biggest corporations located here told me, 'All the incentive deals and traditional policy deals that Indianapolis and other cities present are nice, but as far as I'm concerned, if you put all that money into making the city nice, both physically and culturally, that would really make a difference," he said.
That's a message that Peterson, like the leaders of many other cities around the country, heard loud and clear, and it's one that an increasing number of towns are acting on.
It's happening in Denver, in Tampa, Fla., in Portland, Ore., in Memphis, Tenn., in Pawtucket, R.I., and Paducah, Ky. And it's credited by urban planning experts with helping spur growth in such longtime cultural meccas as Austin, Texas and San Francisco, and the collegiate center of the Boston "hub."
In the case of Indianapolis, the city of more than 850,000 people has nearly doubled the direct funding it gives to arts groups. One of Peterson's first moves was to draw up a cultural tourism initiative to draw on the city's arts institutions as a tool to lure visitors, and funding for the drive is now more than $10 million over five years.
The immediate effect has been more money for artists, musicians, dancers and cultural groups, along with other amenities such as lower priced live-work spaces and tax breaks. But in most cities that are trying the approach, the longterm goal is not to create a city that looks like an updated version of New York's Greenwich Village, populated with painters, poets and folk musicians.
Instead, it is to create an environment that will make it easier for corporations either already in the city or considering relocating there to attract topnotch employees — the so-called "creative class."
According to the prevailing wisdom, these are people who want to be able to spend their free time soaking in culture. For some that might mean gallery hopping or hanging in clubs to hear cutting-edge live music, while for others it could be going to the symphony, the ballet or museums.
These members of the "creative class" are the same people who bring the kind of imagination and energy to their work that companies crave, according to the man who has become a kind of guru for the movement to grooviness, Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida.
Florida says cities need to appeal to these people, who he believes are the core of the new American economy — the people who work in "knowledge-based professions" such as health care, law, academics, design and high technology, along with the performing and visual arts, musicians and dancers.
"Clearly we are experiencing an economic transformation of sorts," said Rod Frantz, president of the Richard Florida Creativity Group, which is based in Pittsburgh. "We are moving away from a manufacturing base. We're going through an economic shift right now that compares to what happened when we went from an agricultural to an industrial economy."