Ann Markusen and Amanda Johnson: Artists' Centers

Evolution and Impact on Careers, Neighborhoods and Economies

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 2 (Summer 2006)

Reviewed by Tom Borrup

2006, 114 pages. Published by the University of Minnesota, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Project on Regional and Industrial Economics (PRIE). Funded by the McKnight Foundation and the Fesler-Lampert Chair in Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota.

If artists are so important to the economic, social, and intellectual wellbeing of our communities, as more research is finding, where will all these artists come from? How do we get them in our community, and how do we keep them? These questions propel the most recent study by Minnesota-based economist Ann Markusen and her research associate, Amanda Johnson. Artists' Centers adds an important piece to the puzzle of understanding the relationship of the arts and the economy — and does so in a way that provides practical information on how these critical organizations work and how they affect artists' careers.

A close-up examination of the macro and micro impacts of what Markusen and Johnson have labeled “artists' centers,” this book traces the evolution of twenty-two Minnesota-based organizations whose variety and importance to their communities is now more well understood. “More and better artists, to use the crass terminology of economics, emerge in and are attracted to towns and cities that offer a portfolio of dedicated spaces for learning, networking, exhibition, and sharing tools and workspace,” the authors conclude. This too describes their definition of artists' centers, also known as artist service organizations or, in some cases, community arts centers.

Markusen's formidable career as an economist has been spent analyzing regional economies, producing studies for defense industry conversion, and assessing occupational approaches to regional development. At the recent turn of the century she switched her focus to the arts and to artists as pivotal ingredients in regional labor forces.

In 2003, with David King, Markusen produced The Artistic Dividend: The Arts' Hidden Contributions to Regional Development. They tracked the distribution patterns of artists in the workforce in the twenty-nine largest U.S. Metropolitan regions and examined their impact on those regional economies. Differing from Richard Florida, they defined artists in the more traditional sense, instead of the broader “creative class,” and they examined the contributions of artists to existing industries. The report shows how artists influence productivity, innovation, product design, marketing, and the quality of life for the general workforce. Rather than icing on the cake of a regional economy, The Artistic Dividend asserted that productivity and earnings in a regional economy rise along with the incidence of artists within its boundaries.

While conducting this research Markusen found that the Minneapolis/St. Paul region stood out. It had a net out-migration of artists, yet maintained a constant growth rate in total numbers of artists. In Artists' Centers, she goes deeper and explores the question: how do some second-tier metro areas generate, attract, and retain such high concentrations of artists? She also asks, how does the Twin Cities region “home grow” artists in numbers well beyond the national norm?

They conclude that Minnesota's “remarkable ensemble of artists' centers” is the unique ingredient, and that, in turn, these organizations, “have contributed to the state's continuing attractiveness as a place to live, to do business and to innovate.”
The book illustrates the formation of these centers and their transitions, (usually from informal artist-run groups to small-scale institutions), and how they serve artists, neighborhoods, and the larger cultural ecosystem. It also looks at the strategic roles played by funders and at the value of collaborations and synergy in increasing the centers' capacity and impact.

Of the profiles, fifteen are ongoing Twin Cities' organizations, five are in smaller Minnesota cities, and two focus on prominent service organizations that have gone out of business. The diverse mix of urban-based centers includes some that address specific disciplines (such as literary arts, playwriting, ceramics, filmmaking, or visual arts) and others that serve affinities and communities (such as disabled artists or specific neighborhoods.)

Each profile is accompanied by stories of artists whose careers have been substantially affected. From their 200 interviews the authors conclude that what artists value most are the bridges these centers provide to peers, mentors, and audiences. Finding such connections, along with training, grants, awards, exhibiting/presenting/publishing opportunities, links to resources outside the region, and simple encouragement were of inestimable importance. The interviews also address ways these centers have affected their immediate surroundings. Spread out among many city neighborhoods, they add to the cultural and creative mosaic of communities and the vibrancy of neighborhood life.

Markusen and Johnson go on to recommend that policy makers in regional economic development, urban planning, and culture acknowledge and support artist centers as good investments. Further, they suggest that state and local governments create spaces for artists and centers; that flagship institutions honor centers' incubating role; that business work with centers as suppliers of creative ideas, design and skills; and that people ranging from the artists to civic boosters raise awareness of the value of these organizations — something they found already common in the smaller cities.