There's nowhere to lock up my bike at the Kool Haus for Artscape's two-day end-of-summer conference, Creative Places And Spaces2: Risk Revolution. That doesn't bode well. I lock to a street sign.
A redux of the org's first gathering in 2003 that featured The Rise Of The Creative Class author Richard Florida, this one has attracted architects, entrepreneurs and civil servants along with people from NGOs for two days of networking and idea swapping. Elected officials are notably absent.
I'm issued a name tag and ushered to a seat in the back of the large room packed with 600 people, mostly 40- and 50-somethings. From the stage, Joe Berridge, founding partner of Urban Strategies, a planning and design firm, tells us great creative cities are run by people in their 30s. We mumble a cheer.
The conference is actually fostering two quite distinct missions. One is dedicated to encouraging ingenuity, beyond-the-ordinary attempts at putting a more human face on our cold and market-dominated cities. To this end, Alan Webber, former editor of Fast Company magazine, says that "loving change means embracing weirdness." It's a bit vague, I admit. He calls on like-minded folks to come together to reframe urban issues.
Author Irshad Manji conjures Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking as a way of challenging authority and honouring the unconventional when we seek city planning solutions. Finally, keynote speaker Charles Landry, Brit author and founder of civic consulting firm Comedia, says we have to nuture a cultural context where unusual ideas will have the space to germinate they won't just happen on their own.
Already the conference lingo has started grating. "Silo-busting" means thinking laterally, "soft infrastructure" refers to people, and as Landry points out, trendy reformers prefer the word "creativity' over "culture' a nice way of sidestepping the debate over high vs low culture.
But my worries really start when we get to the other purpose of the gathering reaffirmation of the newfangled belief that culture is an economic asset and that allotting more space for its activities in the city is a profitable investment.
Artists have become the glistening engine oil on the city's financial dipstick. This idea gets fleshed out on day two at the Distillery District, the best known venture of Artscape, a successful non-profit developer that builds and manages artist studios, NGO offices and performance facilities.
Again there's nowhere to lock my bike. At one session, U of T professor of geography and planning Meric Gertler speaks about his Profitable Strategies for Creative Places project, explaining his concept of Toronto's bohemian index. According to Gertler, 113,730 Torontonians, or 4.4 per cent of the workforce, are employed in cultural sectors, which he sees as good. But, he says, we also suffer from a conservative approach to taking risks and a lack of coordination across the various cultural sectors.
Rita Davies, the city's director of culture, describes that coordination effort as being "like piloting an iceberg." She's been fighting for change since 1984 when she left the theatre world to join the Toronto Arts Council. She and her colleagues managed to raise the Council budget over the next six years from $250,000 to $600,000, precisely by moving "from an emotional argument to an economic one.... Culture is not a charity case, it's an investment."
But I can't help wondering as I sit in the renovated factory, is this just a convenient argument, new economic lingo to wake up conservative decision makers, or do proponents really mean it? Are they actually suggesting that art is ultimately for profit? What happens when another economic theory comes along to disprove the bottom-line usefulness of self-expression and the entire argument gets scrapped?
I think, as well, of the trickle-down effect on the artists themselves. I'm envisioning an entire new generation of drones raised on the idea that the arts are about return on investment rather than contributing to culture or questioning authority. What a waste.
The most powerful idea to come out of the conference is from Manji, who reminds us of the importance of "creative failure." This, she says, occurs when groups push untenable, hard-edged agendas in order that softer, more moderate versions get a hearing. It's an old trick left over from the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism.
Sounds like fun. Here's one possible version of an extreme formulation: the bottom line of profit will ultimately render art as marketing, liquidate culture and dissolve our values, reducing humans to naked, dirty and miserable animals viciously fighting over scraps when the entire global economy implodes (which will be soon if we don't bring it to heel now).
And here's the moderate spinoff: change-makers need to recognize that the fabric of culture is woven with community values, and stand up for the notion that the economy is in fact a means to cultural ends, not the other way around.