The arts, culture and the value of things

Preston Dickinson, “Factory,” 1920/Courtesy Wikimedia

In a society obsessed with assigning a dollar value to everything, we naturally attempt to tease out the monetary value of the arts. Or maybe that should be “unnaturally.”  A recent study, by American for the Arts, with local support from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and Business for Culture & the Arts, for example, determined that non-profit arts groups generate $253 millionin annual economic activity in the Portland metro area. I have no idea what the total would be if we added for-profit arts and culture activity into the mix, all the local bands and clubs, artists and galleries, touring rock shows and circus extravaganzas, into the mix. Pink Martini by itself must contribute massively to our collective GDP, fetching currencies from far-flung regions, Euros and Yen and all their kin. Anyway, the number would be very large indeed.

And what if you tossed in arts-related businesses, design firms of all sorts, from architecture to bike manufacturers and including clothing and shoe design? And how about computer chip design and then manufacture? Solar panels? Because, yes, they really are “arts-related.” As my mentor in these things, John Dewey, points out, in the age of industrialization (and post-industrialization, I suppose, not that I know exactly what that means:  Haven’t the great factories of the world simply moved to China and other places?), we tend to think of the arts as “independent and esoteric.” In fact, they are dependent (meaning simply, “connected”) and everyday.

Trying to tease out their monetary value, therefore, is practically impossible, not to mention their effects on our other cultural practices. Just look at the local effects of one little satirical sketch comedy show, “Portlandia,” on the city and its sense of itself. How do you measure that?


I had a conversation recently with a very intelligent man I’ve know for more than 30 years. He knows business, specifically the real estate and development business, and I value his opinion on matters of the local economy. In this conversation, he was bemoaning the inability of the local creative economy to generate jobs in great numbers, and he feared that we were becoming a “boutique city,” a course that eventually would impoverish us because we weren’t creating real wealth here.

I tried to point out that creative economy companies tended to be small and that they frequently had clients—for their designs of buildings, graphics, products—all over the world. I hadn’t seen recent numbers, but I assumed that as a cluster, they made up a large and productive part of our economy. And just as I started in on the Intel Effect here, which I sometimes forget, we were interrupted. Yes, Intel Effect deserves that capital E.  Intel and its circle of locally based suppliers is a massive driver of our GDP and export economy.

And then, soon after that conversation, various studies started coming out that showed how Portland’s economy has grown, driven by high-tech and the creative economy. (I’m using “Portland” to mean “Portland metro”—another chip plant or mobile app developer in Gresham or Hillsboro helps the whole region.) Brian Libby at Portland Architecture assembled several of these studies in a recent post to make the point that we are growing and producing more, sure, but also that our growth is more balanced than other places. He left out one important study, a Brookings Institute survey, that demonstrates how valuable Intel and the high-tech industry is to the Portland and national economy. I think my friend, like a lot of us maybe, don’t understand how successful Portland has been.


Would Intel be here without First Thursday? It’s at least somewhat interesting that the two started here around the same time, but I’m not making that claim here. I’m not privy to Intel’s thinking when it established its first beachhead here, though I’m sure that some combination of abundant water, cheap hydro electricity, tax breaks, proximity to Silicon Valley, and a relatively well-educated work force had more to do with it than First Thursday ever could have. But once Intel was here and opened research facilities and kept expanding… now, we’re in that place where it’s hard to tease out specific effects. Arts shape the culture; Intel shapes the culture; they both shape each other through the culture. And in Portland, that culture values creativity of various sorts very highly (also: environmental awareness, democratic processes, cooperative enterprises, “balanced” living).

I see all of these expressed in the arts community here, to varying extents. In the late ’90s, for example, I started seeing lots of artwork by younger artists that focused on the environment and environmental problems, and then soon after, I realized how deeply that value had sunk into our local culture, where it continues to guide our practices—transportation, building, waste disposal. And when I see a Portland band on one of the late-night television shows (as I so often do, now much more than ever before), I’m struck by how “out there” they seem (in instrumentation, musical exploration) than the other bands that turn up on those programs. I think they succeed because they are more adventurous, more creative, than bands are in most places. And in turn, they inspire us (meaning, me) to be more creative, too, to push our thinking in our various enterprises further than we have before.

Just to return to my original point: Culture is entanglement; it’s engagement; it’s give and take. Even in the simplest human societies it’s hard to establish cause-and-effect relationships or measure degrees and extents of influence, let alone in the complexity of the 21st century city. The arts, which Dewey considered to be our highest achievements as humans, are pervasive. They are also useful in ways we can’t begin to calculate, even if we are economists… or arts writers.


2 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Amen, brother! I would add that they are not, repeat, not hobbies, as one Oregonian reader called them in a letter to the editor this morning, rejecting a $35 annual tax because it supports hobbies. The letter is emblematic of a culture that values nothing unless it makes lots of money. I think we’d better not get complacent about our attitude toward creativity in this town; that’s a good way to lose our grip.

  2. Barbara Irene Nagler says:

    I am going to rant about my perception of the nature of money and value, because almost everyone, including artists, is caught up in it in a way that saps much energy for creativity and true exchange.

    This should be stating the obvious, but we don’t live as if it were.

    Assigning value to pieces of paper or coins or numbers in a computer can be convenient, and may originally have been well-intentioned. But unless everyone involved sees through its unreality, and is committed to keeping things ethical and as close as possible to perceptions of real value, it spawns a monster that cuts us off to one degree or another from the essence of exchange. That’s the sort of system we’ve got now, as long as we choose to believe in it and use it.

    The pre-money gift economies were more civilized and more attuned to what real, incarnate value is, and how impossible it is to replicate in the abstract.

    What we have now is a debt/growth interdependency that is esp. destructive as it needs constant fuel, needs winners and losers, and needs to plunder the earth to feed the game. It’s set up so that there’s no lasting way around any of that, and bandaid solutions are just that, not a true healing.
    Local currencies can be a good first step back to reality, since the people involved would know each other and be closer to the sense of what they really value.

    We all lose at least a little by continuing to play the big game dominated by big players (“They”, whoever, are probably more aware than anyone of how unreal it all is, and therefore just as frightened as those they cast as “losers”, upon whom they are terrifyingly dependent)
    My only suggestion is to focus on what we really value and do it. Don’t wait for the grants, don’t wait for anything, find a way, there always is one. Do what’s necessary to survive, but lure people away little by little from the big game.

    (And no vengeance on the gambling and usury addicts at the top (1 percent and all that). Eventually this will all have to implode, because we do have limited environmental “resources”. And whoever they are, they’re you and me too, and we may all hopefully be healed and encouraged to join with everyone in the same infinity loop of exchange, with all its colors and flavors and sounds and smells, heights and depths and plateaus, flow and exhilaration and the tedium that itself can be transformed to music and art. And to get real.)

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