Where Ecosystems Collide
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.