Where Ecosystems Collide

Posted by Gregory Burbidge, Jun 10, 2013 5 comments

The greatest biodiversity in the world occurs at the fringes between two ecosystems. That's what I heard last month when hearing a panel discuss the intersection of arts and natural resources. The panel included a nature photographer, an education expert from Zoo Atlanta* and a landscape architect amongst others. It was fascinating to hear about people's work at the spaces between the arts and other fields. It was a technical and ecologically specific fact, but one that likely resonates with all those working at the fringes of very different worlds.

Planning for Diversity
Last summer, the board of our metropolitan planning organization, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), voted unanimously to add arts, culture and creative industries into their scope of regional planning. Arts and culture were brought into a dialogue with transportation, land use, aging services, natural resources, workforce development and other regional planning priorities. The integration of arts into the functional areas of planning means the incredible resources and tools available at the commission are now being leveraged to help create solutions to the challenges that exist within the cultural community.

The creativity of my colleagues never ceases to astound me. While I thought it might be a challenge to talk about the fringes between the worlds of watershed protection and the arts, my peers who work to protect the Chattahoochee River Corridor, for example, were full of ideas about where these intersections occur. Land use planners, those who work with lifelong communities and transportation experts have all articulated what is unique about bringing arts and culture to the table, and what their field will be able to do with these new tools that they would not be able to accomplish otherwise. Diversity thrives where the fringe between ecosystems overlap.

Biodiversity in the Arts Ecosystem
The biggest challenges exist for our work not when we discuss where the creative industries meet other sectors but where we try to find the common ground within our own sector where areas of the creative industries overlap.

When the Atlanta Regional Commission absorbed arts and culture planning into its portfolio, it did so not only because people know that arts and culture are critical components of place-making, but also because arts, culture and the creative industries are crucial to the continued economic success of a region. Atlanta has thriving film, video game and music industries. We have enormous cultural institutions and vibrant street art. Our literary scene is strong. And, the impact being made using arts to create social change does us proud. All of this is work falls under what we often describe as the Creative Industries.

When pressed, I often use the Americans for the Arts definition of the Creative Industries as those “businesses involved in the production or distribution of the arts." This is the definition and corresponding tax codes that we used in 2011 to compare metro regions. We were able to say that out of 13 peer regions, Metro Atlanta had the highest number of arts-related employees per capita and the third highest number of arts related businesses per capita. These are the same numbers regularly quoted when advocating for positive arts and culture policy.

When I back into the question and use these numbers, it is easy to support a policy that I already feel strongly about. The challenge comes when I look at all the diverse groups that exist in this data set, in our cultural ecosystem, and begin to ask what policies would support this sector as a whole. These businesses, both for- and nonprofit, have wide ranging needs.

Recognizing our Neighbors
It is this conservative and yet seemingly broad definition that we used at the Atlanta Regional Commission when pulling together our advisory committee. In the past when I have participated in groups representing the arts and culture community, these groups have been largely made up of nonprofit leaders. Our mission of including arts, culture and the creative industries extends far beyond that, and watching a broader conversation begin to take shape has been some of the most exciting and rewarding work in this endeavor.

We now have a group of regional leaders who volunteer to act as an advisory committee. They meet every month and include community stakeholders ranging from mayors and county chairs to post-secondary institution leadership and real estate developers. These are individuals who are all willing to be strong champions for the needs of the creative industries. The creative industries stimulating our conversation include the range, from dance organizations and theaters to video game producers and animation companies.

The cultural community has expressed great enthusiasm for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s willingness to face challenges arm in arm, but articulating what those challenges are for the broader community is daunting. What issues could be tackled so they make sense for both a house museum and a blockbuster film production? Many days the hard work of our committee begins with simply determining where our ecosystems overlap and what keeps us together.

When you put so many individuals representing the broad spectrum of the creative industries in one room, there is little family resemblance around the table. There is little sense that these are all my tribe, my people. The response is regularly "I am not sure why I am here?" We creative industries folks are a fragmented lot. We do not all make carpet, cars or clean air like various other industries do. For the most part, we are involved in the "creation and distribution of cultural goods" but have found very different paths within that that and it is hard to recognize that we are on the same road.

I will use my blog post today to shout across the country and try to hear from others whose work occurs at the fringe edges where ecosystems collide, even when it all exists within the creative industries. We have been carving our own path in the metro Atlanta region, and with enough success that every month our committee membership continues to grow and participation has not waned. I would be interested in the response our field might have to the inherent questions: What issues bring the whole field together? For all those involved in the production or distribution of the arts, what story could you tell that would generate nods of recognition from those working in all, or even many, of the hundred of industrial sub-sectors that make up our community?

*Note: One intersection between the arts and natural resources: elephants, gorillas, crows and the black rhino with its prehensile upper lip all spend time painting to exercise their brains.

5 responses for Where Ecosystems Collide


Greg B says
June 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Thanks for the I sinful comments. I'm always excited for an opportunity to pose a question, so that I can drink from the firehouse of knowledge you pass along.

Allen-- some well articulated answers and questions. Always exciting to be in dialogue with you. I was fortunate to hear more on the creativity network work at Randy's Research Roundup at the convention this year.

Jess -- I was talking about you at Lunch today! I got to dine with Rebecca. A privilege far too rare. Come back to us!

  • Please login to post comments.
Jess Stern says
June 12, 2013 at 4:59 am

Great article Greg!

  • Please login to post comments.
Ms. Elizabeth P. Yerxa says
June 11, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Working at these "fringes" is exactly what we are doing here at Triangle ArtWorks.

We are bringing the Creative Industry (all disciplines) in the Triangle Region of North Carolina together as a business community and supporting it as one. Coming together as a business community makes it easier for this community to find the business support and information it needs, but also creates an entity to look at the "big picture" for this community and give it a presence "at the table" in local and regional economic development efforts. Our advisory Board is made up of arts, economic development and downtown development leaders from across the Triangle. So, we are working every day at that "fringe" between the arts community and economic development/broader business community.

The Triangle consists primarily of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel HIll and Cary, NC, as well as the Research Triangle Park, and many smaller, but no less vibrant towns. This is one of the fastest growing regions in the Country and one that is full of creative and innovative people and industries. We are the first arts organization to pull the entire Triangle creative industry together, but we are working with established local arts and economic development organizations to do it.

We are just getting started, and still building the platform and network for doing this work, but already building momentum in the arts community--a strong business network, centralizing access to business information and working on some programs. But at the same time, because of our "big picture" view of the Regional arts community and our connections to that community, we are becoming an important resource and connector for economic development and downtown development leaders throughout the region.

We have learned alot in our first three years, and would be happy to talk to anyone more about this issue this week at AFTA 2013. It is a very exciting way to support the Creative Industy AND economic development. Funny, you say "fringe", but the visual often in my head is from Ghostbusters...."Don't cross the streams!" Well, we are crossing the streams-and arts working together with economic development is very powerful!

  • Please login to post comments.
June 11, 2013 at 10:31 am

Hi, Greg. You raise a lot of good questions here, and I'm going to suggest some answers as a part of adding to the discussion, rather than trying to be absolutely definitive. Regarding the question about the definition of the creative economy, and what sectors to include or not include, there is a group affiliated with the National Creativity Network which received an NEA grant to conduct research on existing creative economy studies. They are charged with coming up with a national definition of the creative economy, including some standard collection of industry sectors to incorporate when doing statistical research. I think this report will be helpful, thought-provoking, and will advance the debate to the next level. Because local perspectives frequently vary, there may always be some disagreement about the exact industry sectors to include in a definition of the creative economy. In regards to why these folks are coming together, and why it seems so unclear, I would point out that even when we gather just the nonprofit arts organizations together, it can still be an awkward fit. Theatre organizations have different concerns than art museums, which have different concerns than literary organizations, and so on. What they have in common is a state agency which funds them all, and it is in their benefit to come together and collectively advocate for policies that provide more funding to the agency, or more staff, or more opportunities for professional development, etc. I would suggest that this is true for the creative industries as well, except that there is not a central agency in most states or on the national level that helps bring them together. Clearly, the Atlanta Regional Commission is forging ahead, and there are numerous other local creative economy organizations moving the creative industries forward in their communities, but this movement is new, and the path is still being cleared, the maps are being hand drawn, and the way forward is murky. So, there is still a lot of work to do, but as a number of other countries and local communities have demonstrated, this can be important and impactful work.

  • Please login to post comments.
June 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Yes, the power of art. Here in Gainesville, Florida there is a lot of talk about art, but I know of 3-4 artists that can make a living doing their craft. The City has put the dept. of cultural affairs under the parks & rec., which seems to kill a lot of funding. We have a 1% for art ordinance which is for all public buildings, passed in '88, yet where is all the artwork? I've asked for an accounting, pissed a lot of people off. It's a very conservative, progressive town. I love it here, but the eco comm. gets all the $'s, and the University is like the mafia. So, how do Southern artists survive? Move north or west I'm afraid. One suggestion, make all purchases of hand-made, American art 100% deductible for all 1st time home buyers. That way they can spruce-up the new digs, get a tax break, and help an artist pay the rent. (Really enjoyed your enlightened article - Go Atlanta!)

  • Please login to post comments.