Jeff Rubin: Key to creating jobs, retaining businesses? A stronger connection to the arts

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How to create jobs, retain business, and attract new industry are major concerns to many communities, large and small, across the Commonwealth and around our nation.

That’s why what the American Planning Association, The American Arts Council, The Kentucky Arts Council, Berea College and similar organizations are doing to address it is worth writing about here.

It starts by encouraging a stronger connection among planning, economic development, arts, and culture. It includes the visual, performing, and literary arts, as well as fields like architecture, graphic design, and marketing. It further presumes that by enabling that connection, the arts will have an impact on a wider variety of jobs, people, and industries.

Using terms like “creative economy”, “creative placemaking” and “cultural economy” to define their thinking, these organizations have concluded that promoting the arts and encouraging creativity can have a profound effect on stimulating local economies. It is an approach that is beginning to make sense to more and more urban planners, arts administrators, economic developers, and business and municipal leaders across the country.

Viewing the arts and culture sectors as contributors to local economic vitality can improve a community’s competitive edge and create a foundation for defining a sense of place. It further serves to attract new and visiting populations; integrate the visions of community and business leaders; and contribute to the development of a skilled workforce.

This thinking represents a significant shift from how these relationships were viewed even a few short years ago, when the arts were often considered a minor player in rejuvenating blighted or neglected areas or being seen as part of the overall community development process.

This shift in thinking may be attributed in part to the Americans for the Arts, a national organization bringing together leaders from the arts, communities, and business to promote “the power of all the arts to build better lives, better communities, and a better nation.”

They are doing so by educating local, state, and national leaders; expanding partnerships between for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors; influencing cultural policy change, and mobilizing decision-makers and stakeholders to utilize the arts to address local community problems.

The Kentucky Arts Council and Berea College are leading similar initiatives here at home. The evidence of which, at least for The Kentucky Arts Council, can be found in their 2015 strategic plan envisioning the future of the arts in Kentucky.

Based upon broad-based public input, this document focuses on five key areas: creating vibrant communities; promoting creative industry; encouraging creativity and innovation; supporting entrepreneurship; and showcasing the arts. It now guides the mission, objectives, and message being conveyed by the Council.

The message is clear: the arts produce significant tax revenue; it puts people to work, both directly and indirectly; it uses state funding to energize private funding; enhances education; and offers year-round opportunities to experience the arts in small rural communities, medium-sized towns, and large cities alike.

No one can write about the arts in Kentucky without acknowledging the role Berea College has played in keeping the arts of our region alive. Its richly deserved international reputation as a center for and leader of the American Arts and Crafts movement and Appalachian Craft Revival spans more than 120 years. Their College Crafts program has been training, making, and selling hand-crafted furniture, brooms, textiles, and ceramics since 1893. Today their program continues to serve as a recognized leader in contemporary Appalachian art, design-thinking, and artist education.

One new leadership role Berea College and the Berea College Crafts program has taken on occurred in July of this past year, when the college acquired the intellectual property rights of AIR, the Arts Incubator of the Rockies.

New to Kentucky, this innovative initiative, now known as the AIR Institute of Berea College, has been working with communities, individual artists, business people, and higher education since 2011. They provide programs that focus on cross-sector collaboration, design thinking, business planning, and lean startup entrepreneurial principles – with an emphasis on creativity. Starting with a 10-state region of the Intermountain West, their programs have helped to raise the value of creativity in communities they’ve served, and shifted the thinking about art, business, money, and value so that disparate sectors can find common ground, grow local creative economies, and increase community vibrancy.

The AIR programs build on the Berea College tradition of serving artists, expanding financial opportunities for Appalachia, and promoting arts, crafts, and creative business practices. By moving AIR to Kentucky, the college expects to help students and others in our region be able to access innovative programs that will help them make a financially sustainable living as artists, creatives, and social entrepreneurs.

Berea College will be offering AIR programs throughout the United States, with an initial focus on Appalachia and the Intermountain West regions.

Sometimes a shift in thinking starts with a single voice and a commitment to be heard. Other times it takes a chorus. Either way, the uncertainty of arriving at a different outcome often requires a change in traditional thinking, a willingness to try something new, and a commitment to staying that course. Given the history and culture of our area, Berea and Kentucky are the perfect place to start.

Jeff Rubin is an advocate, adviser, and upcoming author on community and aging issues. He has spent over 20 years as a director and facilitator of community service programs at the local, state and national levels. An advocate for “Age-friendly” and “Livable” communities, Mr. Rubin is currently working to advance these initiatives statewide in Kentucky, and invites your comments, involvement, and support. He can be reached at Jeffrubin515@gmail.com.

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