Houston Summit for the Creative Economy
Fighting Houston's image as Austin's frumpy sister: You can't put a man on themoon & fear LED lighting
Creative rumblings in Houston's visionary circles are ready to take flight. Where these tendencies will go — ideas in public art, urban infrastructure and the future of our economy — were charted Friday at the Houston Summit for the Creative Economy. CultureMap was there, taking close note of where the city's headed.
The dialogue on the mounting importance of such buzz words as "creative economy" and "knowledge workers" sparked in 2001 by Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class came into focus as speakers from the visual arts, theater, culinary and design communities exchanged perspectives at Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business. All panelists converged on where the city stands on capitalizing on these issues.
"The only way we're going to survive in the future economy is to use more creativity than we've ever used before," argues George Worthington, founder of Creative Houston.
Worthington cautioned that routine careers in factories and traditional offices are not only being outsourced to China and India, but will soon also be exported to emerging economies in Brazil, Indonesia and African nations. In these sectors, there are now two to three billion workers in the global supply that weren't there 20 or 30 years ago.
Panelist Peter Bishop, a futurist and University of Houston professor, elaborated on how technological advances are usurping routine jobs.
Today, creative jobs in Houston account for nearly as many positions as those in the manufacturing sector. In a city with a historic reputation as a petroleum processing mecca, this represents a surmountable economic shift. There are 13,000 creative, highly educated and mobile professionals working in museums, arts organizations and as individual artists — but there's still room to grow.
Houston Arts Alliance CEO Jonathan Glus pointed to other cities revolutionizing entire neighborhoods into hotbeds of creative and technological innovation, like how Chicago reinvented its image in the 1980s as a decaying industrial city into a nexus for small businesses in film and music. The National Endowment for the Arts recently awarded a grant to that city to plan the Cermak Road Creative Industry District — a for-profit plan to rezone and reinvent Chicago's near southwest side.
Similarly, the traditionally blue collar city of Milwaukee recently received a $142,000 federal grant to assess and redevelop its creative economy, and the San Francisco redevelopment authority won a $4.56 million grant for constructing an arts and technology district. Glus asserts that to rise to the top of the crop of creative cities, Houston must create momentary density, incubate creative hatcheries, help creative people lead and update Houston's business image.
"We are still the frumpy sister to Austin," he laments.
Meanwhile, the role of nonprofit and for profit arts organization is also evolving. For example, for its public art projects, the Houston Arts Alliance doesn't recruit artists via commissions, but with contracts. HAA's director of civic art and design Matthew Lennon used his work with the Houston Airport System as a case study. In 2001, New York-based artist Luca Buvoli won a contract for his "Vector HH" piece in Hobby Airport, which has recently been installed.
"We're not using long-term consultations, but quick vision planning — which should work in Houston because we hate drawn out planning," Lennon states.
Although public art is traditionally viewed as a simple intervention into the public realm by an outside artist, it actually represents a key opportunity to call upon the city's creative professionals. When installing "Vector HH," for example, HAA culled local architects, fabricators and installers.
"Civic design is an investment in the local economy — 100 percent of the artist's contract goes into Houston jobs and citizens' quality of life," Lennon says.
The summit was an outpouring of progressive ideas for enhancing Houston's status as a creative economy. For example, Lennon suggests that artists more eagerly embrace technology. He recounts the installation of Dennis Oppenheim works on John F. Kennedy Boulevard at IAH, which involved implementing over 25,000 LEDs. He recalls, "The artists and airport employees just said, 'Oh my God, how does this work? What will they do if they burn out?'
"This is the city that put a guy on the moon and they're afraid of LED lighting?" he asks.
Lennon, along with Metalab Studio principal Joe Meppelink also advocates embracing more progressive architecture and enhanced infrastructure.
"Architecture should be bold — what happened in Houston?" Meppelink asks. "We had a great legacy from Gerald Hines and Philip Johnson. We did the Menil, bringing Renzo Piano's first commission to the United States. And then we fell asleep for 30 years."
On a more basic level, straightening roads and burying cables were suggested as basic beautification techniques for ditching the "frumpy" label.
There's also a move to embrace the city's topography, whether through collaborations with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, implementing vertical wall and rooftop gardens and installing "urban plantations."
"When we combine all of these things together, we have economic sustainability," Lennon says.
How Houston capitalizes on these potential creative assets in the years to come will determine its position in the global framework. The mood at the summit, however, was not one of foreboding, but of confidence in Houston's knowledge workers.
In his talk about the dichotomy between thinking and making, Meppelink reported on his firm's installation of artist Chris Doyle's "Showershade" in Austin this year. It's projects like this that speak to Houston's ability to not only summon creative minds, but export its high-impact creative resources to ensure economic vitality.
If we make the right moves, Houston may soon be expanding its model as an innovation habitat across the nation.