Can You Manufacture a Creative Cluster?

By Danny Butt

The development of the creative industries and creative clusters is a policy problem. Governments know where the concentrations of creative industries activity exist, but only know a little about how we can help them to grow. Very little is known about how to make clusters appear where they don’t exist already. Creative practitioners tend to work with what’s around them, rather than waiting for clusters, industries, or other government interventions.

Historically, ‘creative clusters’ have developed informally: artists begin the process of gentrification by moving into areas of cheap rent and with the space to set up studios. In the West during the 1960s to the 1980s, the prime locations for artists were in the inner cities, which had been evacuated by the middle-classes who moved to the suburbs. The artists polished floorboards and turned empty warehouses into apartments, making it safe for other professionals to move in and enjoy the newly gentrified ‘creative environment’, pricing out low-income artists in the process … who then look for new zones, and the cycle begins again.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that the artist’s creative labour finds its early home in informal real-estate development, even if the artist themselves does not always profit. There is no doubt that some of the support given by governments and large firms to the arts is based on the knowledge that it will lead to higher real-estate values and general economic development. In a famous example, the British artist Damien Hirst, then a young art student, secured thousands of pounds of sponsorship from property developers to present the Freeze exhibition that would launch the Young British Artist (YBAs) movement.

The history of artist villages in Beijing has also shifted with the increasing recognition of the state and the market, and property still plays an important role. Thomas Berghuis suggests notes that ‘several art exhibitions have been organized in newly build high-rises, making use of this sites to promote “contemporary art” together with “contemporary living”’. Such apartments are likely to be too expensive for artists themselves, which still leaves unsolved the development of the artistic ‘engine’ of the creative economy.

As Kate Oakley notes, initiatives that try to manufacture creative hubs have been less successful than those that consolidate existing creative activity. Manufacturing a successful creative sector from scratch is an almost impossible process – creativity is not generated, it emerges. The creative sector has an economic model where value is not tied closely to human-hours of labour, but depends upon being valued in the eye of the beholder. Value is created after the inputs of production, and as the saying about Hollywood films goes, ‘nobody knows anything’ about what will succeed in advance. Taste-makers with an eye for talent and access to capital connect to both young creatives and the businesses that provide an interface to their work (galleries, etc.). Until those relationships emerge, there is not yet a ‘creative economy’ to be supported. But providing a welcoming environment for A-list taste-makers – always on the move with the leading edge – is no straightforward proposition.

Outside of the specific cultural formations of the developments in Beijing, there is a fundamental difference between the rapid growth of China’s urban economy and the slowing growth (or economic decline) occurring in the West. In a rapidly growing economy, there are always opportunities to pursue new economic development plans, even if their success is not guaranteed. For this reason alone, it seems that the vast array of initiatives in Beijing will continue to flourish, and could provide interesting new models to influence Western policy-making. For Western policy-makers, however, the question of how ‘creative industries’ operate in a declining real-estate market is a major problem that will remain unsolved.

Danny Butt lectures in Critical Studies at Elam School of Fine Arts, National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries, University of Auckland. He is a certified management consultant, and recently co-edited the book PLACE: Local Knowledge and New Media Practice (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2008).