September 17, 2013 at 5:52 am CDT

We’ve all read (or should have read) about how the creative class can impact cities in terms of making them more livable places, but also in terms of developing more vibrant and prosperous economies. Creative Communities: Art Works in Economic Development published recently by the Brookings Institution puts some data behind those trends. The collected research both reinforces the need for a strong arts culture, but also takes that knowledge in some surprising directions. One of the key findings from an essay by Peter Pedroni and Stephen Sheppard is this:

Our analysis reveals interesting results with policy implications: There appears to be a causal connection in which increases in local culture production generate permanent increases in local GDP … They suggest that arts and culture production makes a difference not just because of a short-run multiplier effect, but also because of its capacity to affect steady-state income levels.

Livability spoke with the book’s editor, Michael Rushton, by phone.

Livability: It’s really interesting to see that investment in the arts can really benefit everyone in a region and perhaps increase wages not just GDP.

Rushton: That’s one of the big new findings. When you are stimulating innovation, there tends to be lots of spillover from firm to firm to firm. Everyone becomes more innovative. The chapter from Doug Newman looks at cultural districts and art schools, and asks how does that impact related industries like media and so on.

Livability: Yes, it doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to suggest we need more investment in arts education in our public schools.

Rushton: You could make that argument. I think one of the big policy things here is that if you want some kind of investment in the arts and you want that kind of community, such things as arts education can help you actually build that. The nice thing about arts education is that if you start to develop that in children as future generations grow, you don’t need as many investments in adult cultural things because you’ll actually have audiences who are willing to pay for stuff and happy to support it.

Livability: One thing we talk about in this blog is the notion that mayors need more tools in their toolboxes than some of the old standard economic development devices like building casinos and performing arts centers.

Rushton: In the book, we were mostly looking at attracting artists and performers. It’s not all about building the world’s most opulent opera house. It’s about investments in culture generally, not about construction projects. One of the things I think this book helps correct is that narrative. I think the research that is in this book looks at it differently. It’s not about multipliers and numbers of dollars spent. It’s talking about attracting arts and artists and how that impacts the whole community, not in terms of spending but actually generating higher incomes because it’s an attractive place to live; it’s where people want to be; it makes businesses more productive; and so on. It gets away from “all we need to do is spend money and everything will be great.”

Livability: What research surprised you?

Rushton: We don’t really find much effect from what are known as ‘cultural districts.’ This is something where there has been a narrative in mayors’ toolboxes where they say this is a thing they have to do, and even state budgets are now encouraging cultural districts. One of the findings is that it’s not that important. It’s good to have investment in the arts that attracts artists, but it’s not necessarily special about saying “and we need to cluster them all.” In some towns, that’s actually not a good idea.

Livability: What about the idea of arts districts as tourist attractions?

Rushton: Some people think this drives tourism, but that’s not necessarily the case. One error that can often be made in terms of arts policy is ‘we’re doing this to attract tourists.’ Tourist numbers are often really over estimated. Your local hospitality sector can often be quite influential in terms of public policy. But this book doesn’t really focus on that. Investment in the arts is not about filling hotel rooms. It’s about getting people to come and live there.

Livability: Here in Chicago we certainly get cultural tourists …

Rushton: There’s some degree of that, but I think Chicago, New York and San Francisco are somewhat different cases. Here in Bloomington, Ind. , you’re not going to get much cultural tourism. But there are investments in the arts here that [can attract new residents].

Livability: What questions does Creative Communities raise for further research?

Rushton: Often we talk about ‘the arts’ and that’s how data is collected. But I think in future years, it would be good to disentangle what is the arts make-up of different cities where we tend to see new investments and kinds of success. We do get interesting studies of cities that have managed to turn things around with investments … Livable towns that were getting a little down and out but have managed to turn things around. People often talk about Paducah, Ky., as a place that successfully revived its riverfront. I think there’s room for more case studies of that kind, both successes and places where it didn’t work.

This was originally posted on, home of the Top 100 Best Places to Live rankings. Copyright Journal Communications Inc. Reprinted with permission.