Techs & the city

Techcrunch recently featured an interview with New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as part of their Founder series. It included this glimpse into Gotham’s cultural policy.

…the business strategy, if you will, of New York City Government is not to subsidize companies, not to pay for people to bring jobs here, it is to invest in parks and cultural institutions and better public schools and lower crime to get the best and brightest to want to live here.

One shouldn’t isolate the items in Bloomberg’s list too much – it’s clear that he reels them off as a the package which make NYC an appealing place for entrepreneurs to locate – but placing cultural institutions in this company prompts some further thoughts.

John Kreidler fleshed the term out in a related context when we interviewed him back in November:

…public libraries, parks and athletic activities are generally in a better position, as cultural institutions, to make a case that they are serving broad publics, in comparison to performing and visual arts organizations.

Cultural institutions make sense in big cities like nowhere else, particularly those operating in the performing and visual arts. They can flourish because there are large, wealthy audiences they can draw on and whose donations and attendance help them cover their high fixed cost base.

Any public investment in these types of institution will always look from one angle like a subsidy for the wealthy, and plausibly, general revenue support isn’t necessary – the institution can exist and thrive without it.

This suggests a different role for the state to play, though. Broadening participation, education or community engagement are common reasons given as to why city hall might provide investment – to ensure that institutions that can thrive in large cities are available to those who cannot afford to pay.

John Kreidler’s comment provides one reason why this is not a simple case to make for performing and visual arts organisations – another is that there are arguably alternative, more targeted and possibly more effective instruments available than direct revenue support for cultural institutions.

So what of Bloomberg’s case that support for cultural institutions should be seen alongside education and crime prevention as a investments that will attract start ups and tech companies?

Ensuring that a city’s cultural scene remains fresh and vibrant comes into play here. The thinking goes that innovative companies like to work alongside one another, irrespective of their industry, and so promoting innovation or risk-taking is another common motivation for state support.

A city like NY or London can maintain a rich and diverse cultural landscape serving all sorts of niches because the large population makes smaller, innovative ventures viable that would be too risky elsewhere because of insufficient demand.

For such ventures, supportive licensing and planning regimes are at least as important as direct investment, and have the added benefit that you don’t have to rely on the state or its representatives deciding that your organisation or activity will be innovative.

And is innovation really what technology companies want from cultural policy?

Here, it is worth returning to the other part of John Kreidler’s interview, here, since he was responsible for establishing Silicon Valley’s cultural policy at the turn of the century.

Given Silicon Valley’s extraordinary concentration of technology and wealth…one might expect that its cultural plan would focus on the crown jewels of high culture: World class performing arts and museums. Instead, the plan’s highest ambition was to restore “standards-based sequential arts education” in the region’s public schools.

In the white-hot heart of American technological industries, the top priority of cultural policy was education which, fortunately, appears on Bloomberg’s list.

(Ed Glaeser’s masterful ‘The Triumph of the City’ prompted many of the thoughts in this piece, as did a rapid exchange of views with the other Bad Culture bloggers at our first physical meet-up. More please.)

This entry was posted in Access, Arts Funding, Cultural policy, Economics, Uncategorized, US Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

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