Creative Space

Can the creative sector help stabilize Alberta’s boom-bust economy?

By Omar Mouallem

A half-assembled Lego set sprawls across a table in the office lunchroom. A mural spanning a brick wall depicts androgynous silhouettes in various poses—typing, singing, thinking, napping, jet-propelling through walls. The figures are surrounded by neatly scripted hipster axioms such as “Whatever you’re thinking, think bigger” and “Get shit done.” A bulletin board pinned with Polaroids shows dozens of faces that occupy the desks inside this downtown Edmonton warehouse. Members of Startup Edmonton, a co-work space on the top floor, they are software developers, fashion designers, graphic artists, marketers, writers and, ostensibly, all under 40.

They are part of what you might call the “creative class,” though Startup Edmonton co-founder Ken Bautista much prefers “creative entrepreneurs.” And he is counting on them—and himself, as a game designer turned venture capitalist—to help diversify the province’s boom–bust economy.

He’s not alone in this thinking. “These conversations come up every time we have a downturn,” says Todd Hirsch, ATB’s senior economist and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline. “These creative professionals are really important, and Alberta [must] emphasize that right now because we don’t have a very diversified economy.”

Creative professionals. Creative entrepreneurs. Creative class. Whatever you call them, in 2007 they contributed at least $84.6-billion to the Canadian economy, or 7.4 per cent of its gross domestic product, according to the Conference Board of Canada (provincial breakdowns are unavailable). And that’s based on a definition of creative economy that encompasses only goods and services in the arts and culture sectors. In his seminal 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida, who coined the term, uses a broader definition: “The core of the creative class [is] people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content.”

This goes beyond intellectual property. Florida sees a wider group of knowledge-based workers, including educators, business consultants and PR professionals, who “draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” By this definition, the creative class makes up 36 per cent of Calgary’s workforce and 30 per cent of Edmonton’s, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute, a Toronto think tank directed by Florida. What excites proponents of the creative class is that it can grow endlessly. Oil and gas are temporary economies, but ideas turned into goods and services are limitless.

Though Florida’s terminology and many of his theories—namely that creative types will spur economic prosperity wherever they settle—aren’t as widely accepted as they once were, business leaders across Alberta are still trying to attract, foster and retain creative people.

Energy made up 22 per cent of this province’s $306.7-billion GDP in 2012. This is an improvement from three decades ago, when energy made up more than a third of the economy. Still, the industry is very much like the dinosaurs from which we once thought oil originated—king of the economic ecosystem, yet most vulnerable to unpredictable disasters.

Last year Albertans saw yet again what happens to funding for healthcare, infrastructure development and especially advanced education when the Alberta government latches its various budgets to an oil derrick. “Look at what we go through,” says Luke Azevedo of Calgary Economic Development. “It’s an ebb and flow economy—years where everything is on a high, costs and jobs go up, and then there’s a downturn. It’s so cyclical.”

Azevedo, Calgary’s commissioner of film, TV and creative industries (the latter part of his title is a recent amendment), doesn’t think his sector is the key to further diversification, “but it will be one of them.” More importantly a vibrant culture gives residents—especially the new ones who may have come for energy jobs—more reason to stay.

“Creative professionals are really important, and Alberta must emphasize that, because we don’t have a very diversified economy.” —Todd Hirsch, ATB senior economist

Startup Edmonton’s home, the rickety, insufficiently heated Mercer Warehouse, symbolizes the creative economy’s ability to fill economic voids. A century ago, the building was a busy shipping-and-receiving operation for agricultural and manufactured goods, but as those sectors dwindled so too did the warehouse’s usefulness. It sat empty for decades, except maybe when the occasional fashion photographer needed a dingy background. But two years ago the building owner and Startup Edmonton, Guru Digital Arts College and the owners of a bar and a café joined forces to instantly make this one of the most popular street corners in all of Edmonton.

Startup Edmonton is also a regular meeting place for people in theatre, computer programming and film. Membership fees cover a third of the $700,000 operating budget. The rest comes from benefactors and the City of Edmonton.

Bautista and co-founder Cam Linke have become two of the most influential Edmontonians outside of public office. When city council debated how the remainder in the 2014 budget should be used, mayor Don Iveson thrust his support behind Startup Edmonton instead of a community league or tourism initiative. “You need a level of interaction and cross-pollination occurring somewhere in your creative economy, and we need hubs for that,” says Iveson. He’d like to see more places like Startup Edmonton sprout throughout the capital and spread the creative culture. Already, a strong local movement called “Make Something Edmonton” celebrates DIY culture. Former mayor Stephen Mandel’s task force on image and reputation recommended that city employees’ business cards pay homage with the phrase “What are you making? How can we help?”

In Calgary, AcceleratorYYC fulfills a similar role as Startup Edmonton (billing itself a “startup community hub and co-work space”) but hasn’t taken off in the same way. However, there’s much excitement around two developments, cSPACE, (the “c” is for creative) in the former King Edward School, and the Alberta Creative Hub, spearheaded by Calgary Economic Development (CED). Azevedo hopes the latter will help bring the city renown for its creative sector. And the need for the $22.8-million film studio, sound stage and hub for digital and media arts, Azevedo says, has never been more urgent. “When we have a [film] sector that functions on Alberta’s vistas and its people, and the vistas are only accessible six months of the year, how do you grow the people of that sector when you have nowhere to put them?”

He was disappointed when Alberta Culture denied the $13-million support he requested to complete the hub, which had been in limbo for eight years. The return on investment for film is $5 for every dollar invested, according to CED, but Minister Heather Klimchuk still won’t offer more than $5-million. “There’s never enough money [for arts infrastructure],” Azevedo says with some frustration. “There’s always somewhere else to put it.”

“If the government goes into a project funding half of it, that’s not healthy,” says Klimchuk. This is a double standard when you consider the billions of dollars that have gone toward stimuli in the energy sector, such as the Alberta Oil Sands Technology & Research Authority, a public–private venture formed by the Lougheed government in 1974 (now called Alberta Innovates—Energy and Environment Solutions). Four private partners will work with CED on developing the film studio. Klimchuk acknowledges the hub’s importance to growing the creative sector. “It’s about economic diversification,” she says.

But is Alberta Culture doing enough to cultivate the creative economy? Sean Gouglas, director of the University of Alberta’s office of interdisciplinary studies, thinks the province could do more, for example, by taking the video gaming industry seriously. At $66-billion worldwide market revenue for 2013, video games are neck and neck with the film industry, which in Alberta is eligible for government grants. Gouglas, who co-directs the university’s new video game development program, the second of its kind in Western Canada, says, “Alberta really needs to consider whether it wants to be a significant player in the game industry, especially when you have to compete with provinces giving significant tax incentives, like Quebec and Ontario.” Local video game companies, such as the Edmonton industry giant BioWare, pay a low corporate tax rate, but this is not comparable to the incentives offered by other provinces.

Bautista, however, doesn’t think tax incentives will help the talent pool he’s trying to grow. “Tax credits would be great for a big company like BioWare,” he says. “But for a brand new company, tax credits are not going to help fund them and get them going.” Instead, space and mentorship are most valuable to creatives of all kinds, he says.

Todd Hirsch agrees. In August he was asked by Klimchuk to chair the refreshed Premier’s Council on Culture with 21 others from the province’s arts, education and technology sectors. The fact that one of Alberta’s leading economists is heading such a council shows a changing view on what creativity is and what it’s for. The team includes several committees with various focuses, including one called Creativity and Transforming the Economy. What the agenda won’t include, says Hirsch, is a request for more money.

“Rather than just cutting cheques to arts groups, maybe the province can provide some business and entrepreneurial prowess to these groups,” he says. An accountant-in-residence program, for example, could give them the business savvy they might lack. Another idea is convincing landlords of empty commercial spaces to offer them to creative people as free and temporary studios or jam spaces, something that Edmonton’s mayor is already giving serious consideration. Iveson is also exploring zoning changes that would incentivize builders to create more rental apartments in Edmonton’s homeowner-dominated market in order to bring up the vacancy rate (which is Canada’s second lowest after Calgary) and bring down the costs of rent, which would make the city more affordable for entrepreneurs, artists and other creative types.

Hirsch says, “[Minister Klimchuk] wants some eyebrow-raising recommendations, and if the first recommendation we give her is ‘do not increase direct funding to arts groups,’ that’s going to raise some eyebrows, but then [she’ll] keeping reading.” He laughs. “I might get thrown off the council!”

In the mid-2000s, when Ontario manufacturing plants started closing or laying off workers by the hundreds, the provincial government got to work on a report called Seizing Global Opportunities: Ontario’s Innovation Agenda. This is what’s needed for Alberta, says Dr. Daniel Doz, president of Alberta College of Art + Design. This is what he hopes will come out of the Premier’s Council, of which he too is a member.

Doz knows well how a behemoth sector—manufacturing in Ontario, oil here in Alberta—affects all others. ACAD was promised a 2 per cent increase in the 2013/14 budget but instead saw a 7.3 per cent cut. Meanwhile, he says, the registrar’s office had three-quarters more applicants than the year before. Luckily ACAD didn’t have to admit fewer students, but it did combine some courses and has risked diluting students’ learning. As ACAD is one of four art colleges in Canada, Doz fears continued cuts will send students away from Alberta. “Our students and faculty, as consumers and producers of art, enrich the fabric of the city,” he says. “Their presence really is important.”

Similar funding cuts to Advanced Education & Enterprise led Mount Royal University to suspend its theatre and music diplomas as well as its journalism certificate, and the U of A to put several design, music and theatre programs on the chopping block. Of course, every Alberta post-secondary institution is still reeling from the budget, but the arts were hit hard because they typically have lower enrolments. This, however, is misunderstood as waning interest, says Doz. “The way we teach art and design is often in smaller classes, because that’s the best way to teach them.”

Universities and colleges are important to the creative class not just because of their arts programs or the training they provide, but because they’re often young people’s first encounter with the kind of intellectual friction that feeds creativity. “These are places of collision, where ideas happen,” says Doz. To that end, ACAD is also planning a Creativity and Entrepreneurship Centre of Excellence that would put artists and entrepreneurs in the same venue for speaking series, “hackathons” (marathon events to invent new software in single sittings) and other events, while also helping secure student internships and venture capital for startups.

Michael Macdonald is a music professor at MacEwan University and senior research associate with Creative Alberta, a group encouraging creativity in culture, commerce and especially education. He would also like to see more business overlap within arts education. “We need to train artists also to be entrepreneurs, and until we’re doing that, regardless of what the rhetoric is, we’re not building a cultural sector.”

Haley Simons, CEO of Creative Alberta, goes further, saying that the change needs to begin at the K–12 level. She is an internationally performing pianist who became disheartened by people who view artists as “trained monkeys.” She says current curriculum focuses too much on “known-outcome value systems”—basically, teaching things that have definite answers instead of encouraging discovery and invention. “If we’re only teaching what we know, how do we discover what we don’t know?” she asks. Imaginative learning, she suggests, is the key to building a creative economy that services every industry, not just the inherently artistic ones.

It’s easy to get riled up about creative cities, classes, sectors and what have you. Attach “creative” to anything—an industry, a brand, a half-eaten sandwich—and you make it instantly more appealing. We speak about creativity as if it were a recently discovered natural resource, but really it’s just freedom to indulge one’s imagination. I’m left wondering: Are we just breathing in the fumes of a modern yet temporary social trend?

Last February, Richard Florida surprised all but his critics by admitting that his creative-class theories—which hold that creatives would pull ailing economies from the dust—may have been overly optimistic. This must have come as a shock for bureaucrats in struggling cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, which paid the economist and University of Toronto professor large sums for policy consulting.

Some experts take offence to the term “creative class,” calling it elitist and saying it ghettoizes the working class and other demographics that are creative in their own ways. “I work for a bank but I like to think I’m a creative person,” says Hirsch, a cautious promoter of Florida’s work. He also points out that other attempts to diversify the Alberta economy, such as encouraging a magnesium industry in the 1980s, have failed, and that there’s no reason to think creative industries are immune.

“If Alberta is to compete for the best talent, the province must foster an environment that encourages the arts to thrive.” —Alberta Chambers of Commerce

Other critics have said the idea of a creative class is hyped up, or accused it of masking the decline of the arts sector. Indeed, Calgary Economic Development’s 2010 creative industries profile, written to espouse the strength of the sector, showed that most of the industry’s growth between 2004 and 2009 was only happening in non-traditional creative practices, such as design, and in sectors surrounding the creative core, such as PR and consultation. But the more traditional elements of the creative economy, from recording artists to art dealers, were shrinking almost across the board.

“You can’t draw a direct link to the economic health of an urban centre just because you’re going to put a bunch of artists in the centre and support them,” says Jeffrey Anderson, executive director of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA). He challenges that part of the Richard Florida school of thought. However, that doesn’t mean arts support doesn’t have important social value, he says. “We know that having art in communities leads to greater social cohesion, that it brings people together in a positive way. Art, in all its forms, has a lot of tentacles. Not just economic.”

Edmonton mayor Don Iveson does believe that the creative industries—especially the fine arts—can pay economic dividends in unforeseen ways. “You can be a better pipeline engineer if you’re stimulated by creative experiences in your community,” he says. But cities also need denser cores for that intellectual friction—what he calls the “bumping in the hallway effect.” Like Naheed Nenshi, Iveson has made infill development and density a major issue. Only then can creativity and innovation become more than buzzwords.

The AFA is the cornerstone of Alberta’s creative industries. Its grants support hundreds of arts organizations and festivals every year as well as over 1,000 individuals. According to the 2012 AFA report Arts Impact Alberta, the local arts sector is worth $378-million. The AFA was not affected by the latest cuts, but was sliced so severely in the Stelmach era that it has yet to catch up to its former $35-million budget. Still, Anderson says, artists are moving to (or back to) Alberta in droves. For a population of four million to sustain at least 10 renowned arts companies, such as Alberta Ballet, is a significant achievement. And this province’s cost of living is more attractive than Vancouver’s or Toronto’s.

According to the Canada Council for the Arts, the return on every $1 invested by government in an Alberta artist or organization is $15.75, compared to $12.92 in Quebec and $10.87 in BC. Yet the Council still only saw 765 Alberta applications last year, compared to 2,400 from BC. And that’s after a five-year plan to induce more grant applicants from Alberta. Perhaps the demand for the core of the creative industry—where the traditional arts such as dance, music and literature entertain us, provoke us, reflect our cultural identity back to us—is larger than its supply. Indeed, the population has grown by a quarter in just over a decade, but arts funding hasn’t kept pace, something Minister Klimchuk will admit: “We’re always playing catch-up.”

And yet, there is still a labour shortage in most economies, creative or otherwise. Employers here offer some of the best salaries and benefit packages, yet have positions to fill. A thriving arts sector is one of the best enticements left. As the Alberta Chambers of Commerce put it in a 2011 report, “If Alberta is to compete for the best talent, the province must ensure that it fosters an environment that encourages the arts to thrive.”

Indeed, while the creative industries on their own won’t save Alberta from another bust or “bitumen bubble,” they can help, even if by just giving residents a reason to stay. According to Statistics Canada, only one in four people who migrated to Alberta for work between 2004 and 2009 listed the province as their primary residence (which means the rest paid income taxes elsewhere). To them, Wild Rose Country is a stopover.

“Alberta continues to be the ATM of the country,” says Hirsch. “People come here, they get their cash and they get out. In the long run that’s not a fantastic way to build a community. What’s here to anchor them and to keep them?” It may be a music scene that never rests, a theatre company premiering plays that go on to international success, a culturally vibrant neighbourhood or a refurbished warehouse like Startup Edmonton where people can think up and launch the next great idea. It will be something that strengthens Alberta’s, and therefore their own, identity. “This is not a Calgary versus Edmonton thing,” says Ken Bautista. “This is Alberta versus the world.”

Omar Mouallem is an Edmonton-based writer whose most recent story for Alberta Views was “Policing the Police” (June 2013).


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