Up from the Roots

Re-examining the Flow of Economic and Creative Capital

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

Tom Borrup

A growing number of scholars and writers have been tracing the multiple connections between the arts and economic vitality during the past decade. A recent book by anthropologist Maribel Alvarez, There's Nothing Informal about It: Participatory Arts within the Cultural Ecology of Silicon Valley (2005) has drawn a new set of connections for me and raised the possibility that informal, or participatory, cultural practices may have greater meaning in an economic context than I previously recognized.

The impacts of cultural participation and arts organizations on local economies, tourism, job creation, the size of the "creative class," and other areas, are increasingly well documented. Likewise, the role of artists and artistic practices in attracting real estate investment, stimulating innovation, improving education, and so on, are also becoming better understood.

Alvarez sparks a new area for investigation. She provides a fascinating examination of heretofore unseen or discounted participatory or informal arts practices and practitioners in California's Silicon Valley, and she found significant and active relationships between these participatory practices and the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurial drive present in one of the world's most economically dynamic regions. She looks beyond nonprofit entities for creativity and culture, and through her ethnographic research, uncovered deep wells of creative assets and cultural practices in a place best known for spawning high tech enterprises.

Seeing and valuing hidden assets

Another author who made new connections in my thinking, Hernando DeSoto, proposed that the roots of successful capitalist societies around the globe lie in the "fungibility" of real estate — an ingredient he cites as lacking in under-developed and post-Soviet nations. In The Mystery of Capital (2000) he argued that given the legal and financial instruments to unleash it — or use it as collateral — land ownership becomes an enormous and widely distributed source of capital. It has provided opportunities for large numbers of people to accumulate assets and allowed them to borrow cash with which to launch or expand a variety of enterprises.

Why are these two seemingly unrelated thinkers, DeSoto and Alvarez, so interesting? Several reasons: they both explore previously uncharted troves of hidden assets along with the vehicles that access and unleash them; they both feel they have come upon heretofore unseen sources of fuel for entrepreneurial activity, and they both challenge status quo institutions and their strategies for creating economic or cultural vitality.

To me they suggest yet another parallel between the cultural and economic fields: that greater energy and productivity result when the flow of capital — financial or creative — is reversed, or at least moves significantly in both directions. In other words when much of this capital comes from, and is under the control of, the so-called “bottom” rather than the “top.” Just as political stability and vitality improve with grassroots participation, economic and cultural spheres also respond positively to invigoration of the broadest possible base.

Widespread invigoration — or lack thereof — has been observed by others in a variety of fields. In geographic as well as ethnic communities, levels of social capital (especially the kind of “bridging” social capital, as described by Robert Putnam) can be tied to their economic fortunes. While not in full agreement, economists and sociologists are beginning to acknowledge this connection. Francis Fukuyama labels this capacity as “spontaneous sociability,” and relates it closely to economic success. I would suggest it is both cause and effect of the practice of informal and participatory arts.

During his famous tour of the U.S. in 1831-32, Alexis deTocqueville observed a surprisingly high degree of this spontaneous sociability. “There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute,” he wrote. Today he would see a different America — and might even survey it online from his Paris apartment — but there's no doubt he'd arrive at similar conclusions.

The direction of the flow

Alvarez claims to have observed nothing short of a fundamental shift in the direction of creative or cultural flow. She saw the amateur or untrained arts practitioner influencing the established art institutions and their ways. This is contrary to common assumptions. She wrote, “Even in an era of pluralism in arts practice, when particular attention is paid to community input and community buy-in, the core belief in the artist as sender and the public as receiver remains solidly in place.”

She asserts that participatory practices challenge the hierarchical framework that brings with it expectations of how participation is supposed to flow — i.e. from arts organizations who present 'good' arts products to audiences in need of “redeeming aesthetic experiences.” What she called the “flow of aesthetic knowledge,” when reversed, becomes the source for the creation of new work. If adopted as an operating assumption, she points out, this would fundamentally alter the definition of what an arts organization might do.

During my twenty-two years at Minneapolis' Intermedia Arts, I attempted to develop hybrid artist/community-based cultural programs. For example, in 2002 I participated in, and later wrote about, an artist-driven “art car” parade as a metaphor for cultural flow. The route literally moved from a more upscale, white area of the city into poorer communities of color. As I marched at the head of the parade holding one end of a banner, I suddenly felt like a sixteenth century missionary charging into a Mayan village. Was I unwittingly participating in cultural colonialism, providing redeeming experiences to aesthetically needy audiences? And if so, I asked, how could the parade be turned around?

James Bau Graves, founder and artistic director of Portland, Maine's Center for Cultural Exchange sees the flow in other ways. In his 2005 book, Cultural Democracy, Graves doesn't so much perceive a movement in one direction or the other, but describes two hubs around which culture spins. The first hub is a cultural or ethnic group's need for internal cultural development — preserving, revitalizing, and passing on culture. The second is that group's desire to demonstrate its vitality to the rest of the world — performing, exhibiting, and teaching others. He argues that tradition and innovation are tightly linked and feed each other. An ethno-musicologist with a long track record of facilitating community-based arts, Graves would be the first to protest institutional models that either see cultures frozen in time, or foster anything other than equitable exchanges moving in more than one direction.

The depth of the shift Alvarez pointed to became even more profound for me when I heard best-selling author Steven Johnson deliver the keynote at the February 2006 Berkshire Conference in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, and, Everything Bad Is Good for You: Why Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter) More males under the age of thirty-five, he claimed, are now playing video sports games than watching professional sports on TV. While they're not physically engaging in sports, they're choosing to be active participants behind the video control unit. Johnson's illumination of the world of electronic gaming — an incredibly fast-growing industry — painted a remarkable picture of a generation more accustomed to manipulating the virtual world, preparing them in profound ways to be active participants rather than observers in the real world. Johnson asserted that the kinds of one-way entertainment and cultural experience, dominant in the twentieth century, were a historic anomaly.

The advance of civilization in the cradle of technology

These cultural and economic ideas are particularly apparent in today's Silicon Valley environment. Even post-dot.com bust, it's a region that continues to see itself as a frontier of creativity. In the realm of contemporary culture — the ways people communicate, participate in exchange, transfer information and values, play, and entertain themselves — this region certainly has grounds to lay such a claim.

For the past three years, I've regularly visited San José, the self-described capital of Silicon Valley. I'd begun to pigeon-hole it as a cultural importer — a wealthy arts backwater that has spent lavishly to build organizations, concert halls, theaters, museums — venues to interpret and re-mount works from the Western European canons in the style and settings to which they've become accustomed. Yet these grand facilities aren't filled with much energy or vitality. In a city of nearly one million people, the majority of whom do not share a European cultural heritage, I've seen only scattered evidence of an active artist community making new work, experimenting, and weaving together that city's multi-cultural richness.

On the other hand, I had begun to wake up to the creativity and artistry among software developers — engineers of culture, modern day artisans hard at work creating new modes of self and group expression, vehicles to share knowledge, values, and rituals. According to Alvarez many consider themselves “daVinci type arts practitioners behind cubicle walls.” Convinced that innovation springs from a creative environment (as defined within the rubric of the nonprofit arts), I still couldn't see where the energy that fuels this enclave of innovation was coming from. San José doesn't have the kind of bohemian environment Richard Florida cites as pre-requisite for a creative economy.

It turns out I wasn't looking under the surface in the way Alvarez did. Through her ethnographic research, she uncovered vast micro-networks of creative activity and cultural re-generation among and including the people who make the Valley's substantial “cultural exports” — computer and communications hardware, software and dot.com enterprises. She provides wonderful stories of low rider clubs creating “tricked-out cars that glide low and slow,” activities at a commercial ceramic studio, workshops at an arts and crafts chain store, music at an espresso café, impromptu performances in public spaces of a ritual/folk dance group, exhibits at a design studio, monthly art happenings, a hip-hop collective, a women's poetry group, and more. Her scans encompassed a wide variety of unlikely cultural gathering places and nontraditional groups. This included the multitude of connections people make through vehicles such as craigslist.com, places de Tocqueville would probably begin a twenty-first century tour.

What does this have to do with the economy, stupid?

Economist AnnaLee Saxanien compared the high-tech engine of Silicon Valley with that of Boston's Route 128 corridor in her 1994 book, Regional Advantage. She concludes that Silicon Valley continued its explosive growth into the 1990s, while Route 128 fell on its knees, largely because of the different cultures of the two regions.

Saxanien reported that Boston's high-tech industries suffered from an overly hierarchical, closed culture in which engineers and executives were trained to keep proprietary information within company walls, to limit social and civic involvement, and to plan on life-long employment within a paternal corporate structure. “While radical new technologies were being developed by the region's electronics companies,” she wrote, “the identities and practices of its engineers reflected the legacy of centuries of industrial history.” Three-hundred-year-old patterns of racial, ethnic, and class segregation, as well as old business models, remained the order of the day.

Silicon Valley culture was quite different. Saxenian observed open social interaction, job-hopping, spinning off new companies when corporate structures became too confining, and a far higher degree of ethnic integration. “Cowboy” entrepreneurs made it up as they went along. “Silicon Valley's supportive social structures, institutions, and collaborative practices provided a framework for mutual learning and adjustment,” Saxenian wrote.

“It is fair to say,” observed Alvarez, “that creative activities in relation to high technology remain at the center of the Valley's culture and economic strength.” She asserted that this cutting-edge frontier of high technology has been a haven for “idiosyncratic creators, who, in spite of their reputations as math and science ‘nerds,' found opportunities for unprecedented creativity.” The exploding numbers of millionaires and billionaires had not yet moved into the hierarchies of old money, and as some turned to philanthropy and civic leadership, they brought their outside-the-box methods to the table.

Alvarez found that informal arts practitioners in Silicon Valley “pick up ideologies emanating from the Valley's corporate discourse, and refashion them into proposals for individual and collective participation in the arts that are not always favorable to the institutionalized formats of the nonprofit arts system.” She saw a flow of creativity from corporate environments into informal art practices, versus, or in addition to, creativity emanating from the arts sector and moving into the corporate world.

Whether Silicon Valley was created by or has created a culture of individualized choice and active engagement is hard to know. In any event this cultural milieu has influenced significant change.

The river of creativity — a two-way street?

Economist Ann Markusen portrays the creative source and flow differently. In The Artistic Dividend, she examined the relationship between a vibrant creative community and a thriving economic region. She found that a region's business success is propelled by dynamic indigenous creativity, which she measured by the presence of professional artists. This is in contrast to the more common assumption that a healthy arts sector is a by-product of, and dependent on, a successful business sector. Unlike Alvarez, Markusen saw the flow going from artist to industry. Regardless of their differences, the importance of the relationship and exchange is still of great importance.

Silicon Valley companies and their executives, claimed Alvarez, departed from the patterns of behavior of earlier American industrialists and philanthropists. She cited employee art programs, grants to local nonprofit organizations, and the acquisition of original works of art to display in corporate offices as special attributes. While it is a dynamic region and is re-shaping communications, entertainment, retailing, and business management, Silicon Valley is not the first to have such profound social or cultural impacts or to have a pioneering approach to civic investment.

Looking at Minneapolis-St. Paul, I see many similarities. Its late nineteenth century entrepreneurs invented new and more efficient methods of milling flour and processing and marketing a variety of agricultural products. They also invested heavily in innovative institutions for culture, learning, recreation, and civic participation.

Well into the twentieth century these corporate food processing and retail giants continued to exert a huge transformative impact on a wider culture largely through household kitchens and people who populate them. In turn, this helped transform family and domestic life, the role of women, and the labor force in general. It began with cake mixes, frozen vegetables, TV dinners, and frozen pizzas, moving to easy-bake rolls, Hamburger Helper, granola bars and a plethora of instant and microwave meals.

Innovation continues as the agricultural and food processing, retailing, along with newer bio-tech industries continue to thrive around this Upper Midwest cultural mecca, fueled — as Markusen argues — by its remarkably vibrant arts community. Two major philanthropies established by founders of the prolific and innovative manufacturer 3M (Bush and McKnight), mirrored a culture supportive of innovation within their corporate corridors and established generous artist fellowship programs to support creativity — programs still unparalleled in the U.S.

“Beyond arts programs, strictly speaking, the notion of creativity has become an important and central postulate among Silicon Valley's leading thinkers and opinion framers,” wrote Alvarez. However, neither cast of innovators was the first to stumble on this formula for success.

Urbanist and economist Jane Jacobs tracks centuries of successful city-regions. In her 1984 book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she cites “aesthetic curiosity” as a central ingredient for success, and asserts that more innovations throughout history came from jewelry-making than from the manufacture of weapons. Likewise, anthropologist Jack Weatherford, in Savages and Civilization, looked at 10,000 years of innovation across the globe. He stated that the key ingredients of innovation are the “collisions of cultures” and “aesthetic appreciation” — forces clearly still at work both in the land of agricultural processing and high technology.

Is the 501(c)(3) obsolete?

The nonprofit arts organization has provided the primary framework through which the philanthropic, public policy, and academic communities have viewed and supported creative endeavors. An important question to ask now is: If the creative activity thriving outside nonprofit arts structures is having a more profound impact on the economic and social lives of our communities than the activity taking place within those structures, is the 501(c)(3) still the most effective vehicle for supporting, presenting, and preserving creative and cultural expression or for changing the economic, civic, and educational dimensions of communities?

Among Silicon Valley's informal arts practitioners Alvarez found widespread distrust of most nonprofit arts groups, although she did find a handful of arts organizations there that effectively bridge the formal and informal cultural worlds. She suggests that, while often under-funded, these community-based groups may provide a key resource in efforts to foster and more fully tap the value of participatory arts and to invigorate a community's creative and economic capital.

Despite this, I don't believe the 501(c)(3) organizational form is obsolete. However, I do believe that the way most nonprofits have managed cultural flow — “delivering” arts and culture to communities, rather than supporting community creativity and fostering exchange — is not helping our communities uncover and put to work their own, often hidden, assets.

In his analysis of capitalism DeSoto explains the value to be found in things we can't see, even when we don't have the tools to harvest them. In a similar way, Alvarez advances the appreciation of informal arts by shining light on them, on how they feed and are fed by innovation, and on how they are related to the development of economic and social capital. Both Alvarez and DeSoto bring into better focus multiple layers of creativity and resources. They make a compelling case for the value and importance of the instruments that foster grassroots participation in the economic and artistic realms. Without these instruments we'll be unable to see and put to work vast hidden assets that are key to the cultural and economic vitality of our communities.



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