The Importance of Arts Education to Economic Development

Many people, including myself, have argued that it is important to include an enhanced focus (or even a focus at all) on the arts within a curriculum that is focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In other words, the focus on STEM should be expanded to be STEAM. Even with these arguments being made, there has been a relatively recent movement to minimize the importance of a liberal arts education across some states. For example, the governors of both Kentucky and North Carolina have made such proposals.

I think this is a grave mistake. To be upfront, I received my bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college, and I am currently an associate professor of economics at a liberal arts university. Thus, I admittedly may be biased. But based on my experience, I know that my liberal arts education allowed me to achieve a deeper understanding and view problems from different perspectives. And in my work with artists on various projects and through my teaching of arts students, I know that they see the world from a different perspective that allows them to approach problems from varied angles.

I think J. Bradford Hipps discusses this very eloquently in his New York Times article, “To Write Software, Read Novels,” published in the May 22 paper edition (published May 21 online under the title “To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf“). In the article, he provides examples where liberal arts graduates working within technology companies applied their abilities to “see” things differently to solve problems that the “techies” were finding to be intractable.

This is not arts for arts sake. This is arts for the economy’s sake.

I am confident that if we continue down this path of gutting liberal arts education from Pre-kindergarten through university, our economy is going to suffer because we will severely diminish the productive abilities of our labor force.

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Arts Are Important Even For Top Athletes

Alan Shipnuck recently wrote a fascinating article about Bryson DeChambeau, one of the world’s best amateur golfers, who will soon be taking the PGA Tour by storm.  In my opinion, the article is fascinating for several reasons, but one quote in the article from Mr. DeChambeau really stood out to me.

“‘…Playing is not about swing theory. When you’re on the course, you have to be an artist.’ DeChambeau can sign his name left-handed, in cursive, upside down. On his bedroom wall is a stippling drawing of his hero, Ben Hogan, that took him four months to create. In 2015 he finally brought this same artistic flair between the ropes, winning the NCAA Championship and the U.S. Amateur. Only four other players can claim this double-dip in the same year: Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Ryan Moore.”

I have long argued that it is very important to have the arts as a core part of the educational curriculum at all levels because even if the person is not going to become an artist, the arts teaches us to “see” things differently. It trains us to approach problems and issues from a different perspective. That is why this part of the article stood out to me. Bryson took a very scientific approach to building his swing and his golf clubs. He majored in physics while at SMU and probably understands the physics and mechanics of the golf swing as well as anyone, but it was not until he realized to be an “artist” on the course did he attain the highest levels of amateur golf.  He is now poised for a very successful pro career. Golf constantly presents you with new challenges on the course that you have to address very quickly, so being able to see different ways to address these challenges through the different shots one can make is very important. In other words, art is great training for even some of the top athletes in the world.

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Creative Industries, Creative Class, and the Effects on Urban Economic Growth

I recently read an article by Erik Stam, Jeroen P.J. de Jong, and Gerard Marlet called “Creative Industries in the Netherlands: Structure, Development, Innovativeness and Effects of Urban Growth.” Part of their research documented in this article looks at the effects of the creative industries and the creative class on innovation and urban economic growth. The difference between the two is that the creative industries is defined by industry sectors (e.g., NAICS codes), and the creative class is defined by occupations. I think the conclusions they draw from their research is quite interesting and very useful for economic development policy.

The analyses show that, with the exception of the metropolitan city of Amsterdam, there is no relation of the presence of creative industries with employment growth. In general, it seems that a concentration of creative industries is a less important determinant for employment growth in cities than a concentration of creative people/creative class. Creative industries do not seem to act as a catalyst for the effect of knowledge (spillovers) on urban economic growth in general. This seems to occur only in the metropolitan city of Amsterdam. This role is ore likely to be taken by the creative class, which was shown to have a much stronger relation with employment growth than the creative industries. If the objective of local economic policy is employment growth, improving living conditions for the creative class…could be more effective than creating conditions for stimulating the creative industries, which is currently widespread policy in the Netherlands…If the objective is not specifically employment growth, but is more focused on the innovativeness of the business population, creating conditions to stimulate the creative industries seems a reasonable policy, as we have shown that firms in the creative industries are more innovative than firms in other industries. However, our study shows that the creative industries are very heterogeneous; businesses in the distinctive domains face different constraints. One policy to stimulate all the creative industries will be less effective than more specific policies tailored to the nature of the specific domains.

Our findings call for a focus on living conditions and labour markets…attracting and retaining individuals in the creative class, instead of business conditions for attracting firms belonging to the creative industries if growth in cities is the objective. Only in very specific urban environments, such as the metropolitan city of Amsterdam, does a policy to attract and stimulate business activities in the creative industries seem to be justified. Perhaps metropolitan environments distinguish themselves from other lower order cities by their intensive social and cultural activity (including creative industries) that provides a source of inspiration for other economic activities…, the local ‘buzz’ of unpredictable, innovative interactions…(pp. 128-129).

I agree with their conclusion that economic development is more about attracting people than attracting companies, but there has to be a place for the creative class to work, so it is also important that the appropriate conditions exist within a metropolitan economy to stimulate the creation, growth, and attraction of creative industry businesses as well. In other words, it is important, as it always has been, that innovation be catalyzed for an urban economy to develop, which brings us back to their point about the importance of creative industries in fostering innovation.

(The article cited in this post was published in the journal Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography in 2008.)

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