The State of the Creative Economy in Michigan

by: Walter Wasacz
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This special report is supported in part by Creative Many, Michigan’s creative sector advocacy organization.

The impact of the arts and creative industries on local, regional, and state economies took center stage at a daylong summit in late September at the College for Creative Studies’ Taubman Center.

The presentations and panel discussions were wide-ranging, but all centered on the state of Michigan’s creative economy and where it is going. There was good news about directions that innovation and job creation were taking the economy; but also cautionary news about how the very definition of work, and what that means to individual creatives, has radically changed in just the past five years.

The overall strength of the conference was its intellectual honesty. It pulled no punches in talking about the state of things in Detroit and Michigan, how it compares to other parts of the country, and what needs to be done to move creative industries forward.

Creative Many Michigan organized the Creative Economy Policy Summit, held during the 2015 Detroit Design Festival.

The summit featured a full day of speakers, conversations, anecdotes, data presentations, and audience participation. There were welcoming remarks by the Creative Many’s president and CEO, Jennifer Goulet, and by Richard Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, who put the event in context by reminding all that the space being used was once the General Motors Research Center, when Detroit was at the center of the world’s creative economy.

Panels included “Research + Policy for Growth,” which asked how does research contribute to better policymaking, advocacy and strategies for growth. Another panel, “Cultivating Creativity through Creative Education,” discussed the importance of creative education — beginning with K through 12 — in developing critical thinking and ways of working collaboratively as the global economy becomes more diverse and competitive.

creative_many_event Attendees of the Creative Many policy summit, Photo by Sarah Nesbitt

Money, mission, and self-expression

The stage for what was to come was set by Helen Kerr of Kerr Smith Design group, a consulting firm from Toronto. In her presentation, Kerr used the cheeky axiom “the future ain’t what it used to be” in talking about how Michigan compares to other places in terms of how creative jobs are being defined and becoming interconnected. She asked the question: what is work today, and answered it by citing Uber and Etsy as examples of “contingent” or “fractional” work that is far different than what was once considered work — a 30-year career with one employer.

Kerr framed the changing landscape of creative work as one filled with “opportunities and threats,” and as “freedom vs. insecurity.” Automation, she said, has not only changed manufacturing — well known in an automotive state like Michigan — but is changing the nature of white collar jobs as well. She used the term “purple collar” — a blending of the two — to describe the future workforce.

“It’s hard to believe that the iPhone is only seven years old,” Kerr said. “We live in a computational world, a world of continuous data capture, where we are [always] producing and consuming data.” She said so far, creative and cultural work has resisted mechanization, though there are no assurances that this will continue.

Kerr said her firm did research in four Michigan cities — Ann Arbor, Flint, Grand Rapids and Detroit — and came back with some interesting findings.

There are over 29,000 digital media workers (software/app developers, multi-media artists, web developers animators, programmers) in those four cities — more than the number of industrial designers in a state well known historically for industrial design.

But Kerr pointed out that Detroit still “has fewer digital media workers than Austin, Minneapolis, Boston, and San Francisco. There is lots of room to grow.”

She also spoke of the value of cultural vibrancy and livable cities — where art, music, film, and theater can thrive — and its impact on the growth of the creative economy. Kerr said young people are looking for not only money when seeking employment, but mission — something that “makes room for self-expression.”

She concluded by saying Michigan has over 73,000 people working in various creative industries (though some freelancers and others might not have been counted). Collected data, she said, are still being analyzed to better gauge where the state excels and where it is behind.

The power of creativity and place

A high-energy conversation between Kresge Foundation president and CEO Rip Rapson and Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, was perhaps the highlight of a day filled with highlights.

After an introduction by Katy Locker, Detroit program director of the Knight Foundation, Rapson and Bennett interviewed each other and engaged with the audience in a lively talk about what enhancing the creative sector can do for Detroit.

“The creative economy pulls (everything) together,” Rapson said. “transit, education, land use, housing — things that are not often intuitive to policymakers. We need creatives at the table to smash everything together.”

creative_many_panel Katy Locker, Rip Rapson, and Jamie Bennett, Photo by Sarah Nesbitt

“The buzzword is talent,” said Bennett, who then broke down what that really means. “People are talent. Creativity is about disrupting and encouraging us to see things in a new way. Not everyone is able to participate. We need to find ways to racial equity.”

Rapson said that Detroit has the opportunity to grow in a more inclusive way, by pulling systems already in place together. “We are not Boston, Austin, or San Francisco,” he said. “[But] we can be an amalgam of the old and the new by including all strands of the community.”

Bennett also talked about how the nature of work is changing, how we are now living in a “gig economy,” where the average American is likely to have five careers in a lifetime. The advantage to this, he said, is that “creatives have a chance to leapfrog and become leaders, show other people how it’s done because we’ve been doing it for the past 40 years.”

In Detroit, Rapson said, artists have a chance to “make a material impact on the city. We have been talking to the Duggan administration about how to embed the arts into the core of decision making. They are listening to us, but we have not cracked the code yet.”

Rapson talked about how in Minneapolis, where he served as deputy mayor, artists were commissioned to perform or show work along the construction of a rail line — not dissimilar to Detroit’s M1 project — that links Minneapolis with St. Paul.

“We haven’t done that here. There has been resistance to pushing artists to the middle and I don’t know why,” he said, before pointing the finger at himself and the Kresge Foundation. “I think it’s on us to do it.”

In a response to a question raised by an audience member, Bennett made a point about how language matters in framing the value of the arts for the public.

“I don’t go home and turn to the person I’m going to spend my Friday night with and say, ‘Hey honey, do you want to do a little arts and culture tonight?’ People don’t talk like that.”

More discussion, questions, and comments

Other panels included “Investing the Creative Sector,” which featured David Egner, outgoing president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and executive director of the New Economy Initiative, who was recently named president and CEO of the Ralph Wilson Foundation.

Egner said one of the challenges of investing in the creative sector in Detroit is keeping talent here. “There has been a lack of inclusive culture here. We’ve not embraced design and culture as part of the community. We’re the best talent feeder for Chicago that they never paid for,” he said. “The creatives — the lunatic fringe — turn a city [around] first. We have them here. You probably all know who they are.”

Helen Leung, also on the panel, knows very well the power of creatives to transform cities. Her Los Angeles-based design group, LA-Más, does experimental design work in neighborhoods. She showed slides and talked about using alternative tactics, including painting commercial buildings with bright colors, to change the street vibe of the Watts community.

creative_many_panel_2 A panel discusses Michigan’s creative economy at Creative Many’s policy summit, Photo by Sarah Nesbitt

Building on momentum

Weeks after the conference, two of the summit’s key participants, Jennifer Goulet of the Creative Many and Helen Kerr of Kerr Smith Design, as well as Jeevak Badve, an industrial designer at the firm Sundberg Ferar, had more observations about the current state and future of Michigan’s creative sector.

When asked how we can help stimulate the creative economy, Badve said that “it must start with a small creative force. Not every idea will see the light of day, not every project will get dollars behind it. But ideas must be constantly generated. The creativity must never stop.”

When asked for a sneak peak of her ongoing research and analysis of the local creative economy, Kerr was candid about assessing the present and the future.

“Our initial research indicates that, other than in the visual arts and industrial design, Detroit still lags other similarly sized cities in terms of employment in the creative economy overall,” Kerr said. “But there has been incredible energy growing here recently. We know that places with thriving creative communities are places that people and businesses are drawn to. We know that innovation rises and all sectors benefit when art, culture, and design are promoted through education and supported with policy and funding.”

And, finally, Goulet said that, with the help of Kerr Smith Design, Creative Many will come out with updated data early next year for the regions (Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor) included in Phase 2 of the group’s Creative and Design Industries study.

“We’ll produce case studies that share experiences of local artists, groups, businesses and entrepreneurs that bring the data to life and affirm the opportunities and challenges facing Michigan’s creative sector,” Goulet said. “We’ll share recommendations for needed investments, strategies and networks to cultivate sector growth. The study will affirm the untapped growth potential for these industries in Michigan, and increase strategic focus on the power of the creative sector in state and local economic development.”

This special report is supported in part by Creative Many, Michigan’s creative sector advocacy organization.