Arts, Culture and the Economy

By Brian McCreath

Nov. 2

U.S. Chamber of Commerce display (source:  AP)

What motivates someone to move to or settle in New England? That’s the question posed by Scott Kirsner in a recent column in the Boston Globe (registration required).  As a piece for the Business section of the paper, it originated in Kirsner’s Innovation Economy blog, and his angle is that, for the most important industries in today’s economy, Boston isn’t doing as well as it could or, apparently, should.

I’m certainly in no position to argue with Kirsner’s reading of the data when it comes to Boston’s place in the worlds of technology, retail, financial services, or defense contracting. In all of these areas Boston is, according to Kirsner, second-tier, and what’s worse is that he attributes that rank to a sense of entitlement that overshadows what’s necessary in our global economy: a need not only to retain the great talent that goes to college in New England, but also to attract that talent from elsewhere.

But here’s where I want to know more. If the ranking of a city within a particular industry, especially those on the cutting edge, is important, as Kirsner says, what else accounts for the choices of today’s most knowledgeable, skilled, and talented people?

In another of his blog entries (registration required), Kirsner scratches the surface of the answer. He tells of asking a class of Harvard undergrads what they’ll be looking for in a city as they start their careers. Sure enough, these best and brightest do, in fact, value a city more highly if it’s an epicenter in the their chosen fields.

But right there, ranked third, is “Culture” (with cost of living slotting in second). Culture is a broad term, so it’s hard to know exactly what that small sample set is really thinking of. It’s safe to say, though, that on the whole, Boston and New England hold their own culturally with any other region of the country. (OK, maybe a specific flavor of culture can be more fully experienced in San Francisco or Seattle or New York, but let’s stick with the broad averages for now.)

Broadly defined, the arts and culture economy has already proven to be a vital force in New England in its own right. According to a September 2011 report from the New England Foundation for the Arts, “every $1.00 spent by a Massachusetts nonprofit arts and cultural organization became $2.20 in sales for businesses in Massachusetts, and every job provided by a Massachusetts nonprofit arts and cultural organization became 1.6 jobs for workers across the state.”  (NEFA's report is an excellent source for a statistical deep-dive, as is the ongoing Boston Indicators Project of The Boston Foundation.)

In light of Kirsner’s Innovation thoughts, how does that economic force intersect with the recruitment of the best minds and talent for life sciences, digital marketing, green technologies, and other cutting-edge industries? It’s a question I’ll be looking into in the coming weeks, so watch this space. And in the meantime, feel free to add your own thoughts and comments below.

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