How to Build a Creative Community

Start with Art.

Art, like most Canadians, comes from small places. Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angle takes place in Manawaka, her fictional mirror for Neepawa in Manitoba. Everything in Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy begins with a snowball thrown in the tiny town of Deptford, modelled after his birthplace, Thamesville Ontario. And Tom Thomson’s trees and lakes and skies can only be found in Algonquin Park and around Georgian Bay.

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the arts are being promoted as the spark for rural economies. After all, the arts have the potential to be an economic engine in their own right.

In 2007, the arts industry (not including cultural festivities) contributed over $80 billion to the GDP or about 6% and nearly $25 billion to federal and regional government coffers. That’s more than some of Canada’s major industries, including forestry and sports: we spent $1.2 billion on live performance but only $540 million on live sporting events. The performing arts alone generate $2.70 in revenues for every dollar invested by government. It takes up to $300,000 to create a job in heavy industry, $100,000 in light industry, but only $30,000 to create a job in the arts industry – partly because artists subsidize their art way more than government or private foundations or corporations do.

That government at all levels is not investing in the arts to the same tune it invests in other industries might have something to do with the nature of the beast. Art provokes. It’s not just another pretty picture to hang on a wall or a well turned pot. It says something interesting about our collective experience, about our place in the world. Art, when it’s good (when it’s art) points to another plane, another way of seeing or of being and it takes us along for the ride. The small place expands to hold universal truths.

That’s pretty hard to nail down. It’s not like a car that people need (or think they do), or a can opener. But it seems to be something we hunger for anyway: we spent $21 billion on artistic and cultural products in 2003.

So, growing up out of the cracks in the pavement of our post-recession economy, where manufacturing cars and can openers has taken such a hit, is this notion that the arts might be the heart of what Richard Florida calls “the creative economy.” The idea is that art ought to be at the centre of an economy that embraces everything from the lonely poet in a garret to a cutting edge engineering firm.

As the Conference Board of Canada puts it: “Creative communities are important drivers in Canada’s economy. They project unique identities that act as magnets for skilled and creative people and for business investment. An important challenge for all levels of government is to ensure that communities have the means necessary to support creativity and diversity, and to build a thriving culture sector.”

The arts are, after all, portable and artists are nothing if not flexible about where they work and, as the data suggest, altogether too flexible when it comes to being properly paid.

And therein lies the danger for artists and for the creative economy. For if you don’t first make sure artists’ needs are met you will end up, instead, with a doughnut economy: a little cake with a big hole. The arts will remain separate from the rest of the economy, put into a little box and sold on the side like Timbits.

So, here are a few rough ideas for putting the arts at the centre of the creative economy and keeping them there.

Fund your artists. You don’t have to know what art is to know what art does. The wise investment is always in good product, and artists make art. Good art attracts paying customers. The data show that the arts spin off jobs and jobs produce tax revenues for governments.

Find a venue that is attractive in itself. Harbourfront was the seed that turned Toronto’s waterfront into a prestigious place to dine and shop and now, to live. Make it a production facility with studios, coffee shops, writing, teaching and rehearsal spaces. Make it a learning retreat for musicians and filmmakers, writers and artists from outside the community. Make it a place for artists to connect with government and business.

Find a brand. Look what the Shaw has done for Niagara-on-the-Lake and what General Idea did for the arts industry in Toronto in the seventies and eighties. If the principle we started with is true: if art comes from small places, then the art produced in say, Owen Sound, will have its own, special brand. It will be rooted in the trees and bluffs and farms, people and spirit of the place. Find it and define it; promote it and sell it.

Local politicians: clear the way with zoning bylaws, incentives, tax breaks and promotions to attract and foster a creative economy. But remember, this is long term investment – no quick fixes or profits here. Contract artists to come up with new, refreshing ways for promoting your community and integrating its economy.

Local businesses: become partners. You stand to benefit the most from the economic spin-off. I know of one award that gives free meals to writers for a year in a restaurant of his or her choosing. And, of course, the winners bring their paying friends and the place becomes a bit of a hang-out. Sponsor awards and competitions. Discover what the arts and artists can add to your profit margin. Just don’t forget to pay them for their expertise.

Provincial and federal politicians: lobby for funding for arts competitions, grants and artists in residence. Help your arts industry seek funding from the private sector and help negotiate private and corporate partnerships. Resist the temptation to get your name on a building – the top priority is to fund the production of art, not to warehouse it.

But to the arts community itself falls the heaviest responsibility. For beyond making art (which is never an easy thing to do), you and others in the arts sector must find the vision that will convince the politicians and funders to invest in your products and expertise. You must remind everyone else that, to paraphrase a sign that hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign office, “It’s the art stupid.”

The statistics and reports referred to in this article can be found in Statistics Canada’s quarterly Focus on Culture reports (, at Hill Strategies Research Inc (, at the Conference Board of Canada ( – search ‘Valuing Culture’) and at the Canadian Conference of the Arts ( – search ‘Creative Economy’).

January 15, 2011
© David McLaren

David McLaren is a creative writer living on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. He worked in the arts industry in the 1980s and served on the Board of the Alliance of Canadian Television and Radio Artists. He has also worked in the private sector (advertising) and in government.


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
This entry was posted in Labour, The Arts, The Economy. Bookmark the permalink.

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