We are not a creative city!

A great conversation is unfolding in the city of Ottawa. The municipal government, local bloggers, culture institutions like Galerie SAW Gallery, social innovation centers and even major media outlets have all endeavoured to help weather a perceived cultural adolescence in the city. What are we? and what can we become? are key questions in growth and development, and we are hoping to add our voice to the dynamic conversation.

This post begins an online conversation between myself (Artengine’s Artistic Director Ryan Stec) and Cultural Planner, DJ, Blogger and urban thinker Kwende Kefentse. Over the month of August Kwende and I will be posting entries in response to one another’s ideas in an evolving conversation about city branding, identity and the civic role of art.

In true Canadian tradition of discussions on identity, I would like to begin this conversation with a few notes about what we, Ottawa, are not. We are not Montréal or Toronto. We are not an industrial powerhouse. We are not a financial hub. We are not a cultural center. We are not a creative city and perhaps most importantly we are not a brand.

The language and methods of commercial branding have steeped themselves deep into the strategic planning of most cities. The Creative City idea has fed off this trend, creating a juggernaut concept that is impossible to avoid in discussions around civic identity. If one believes that western urban centers must redefine themselves to be included in the new “creative economy”, then being a Creative City is not just seductive, but also a matter of survival. Although I don’t consider the problem to be specific to Richard Florida and his Creative City research/concept/index/etc, but with the underlying idea of city branding, what is interesting to me about the Creative City trend is how cultural organizations (myself/Artengine included) have participated in the branding process. What I feel needs to be considered is – What might we be losing when the cultural life of the city becomes a component of its brand, rather than integral to the life of its citizens?

Different components of city life are prioritized for how they add value to the brand. Within the cultural sector we have had a multi-layered approach that defines our value-added qualities. The most obvious, and easily understood, is the service we provide to the prized “knowledge worker”. A vibrant cultural sector is understood to be key to attracting the fluid and mobile knowledge-based workforce, and culture producers tend to desire this educated and affluent audience. Beyond this however, cultural organizations across the country have sought to establish economic legitimacy for culture in its own right. If we monetize the impact of culture we can establish ourselves not just at the service of other economic pillars, but as a key pillar ourselves; leading to actualization from culture as a component of civic life to a “cultural sector” or “cultural industry”.

City branding reframes the discussion on the quality of civic life through a commercial lense that devalues key components of what a city really needs to be for it’s citizens. Brands are constructed to seduce outside investment, tourism and general perception. City characteristics are considered on how they add value to the brand, not the city itself.  My concern with the growing trend in the monetization of cultural value is not only that it contributes to this larger reframing of civic life in terms of brand value, but that it positions the discussion of cultural value outside the language that is most important to cultural production itself. If we acquiesce to a dialogue about cultural value primarily outlined in economic terms, aren’t we moving away from the most powerful potential of culture to enrich civic life and to be relevant to a broader and broader public?

There is a great deal to be unpacked about the relationship of art and the artist to the greater public, and at the heart of my argument may be a somewhat romantic notion of the potential of art. However, this is not an argument for the intrinsic value of artistic pursuits. It is a challenge to cultural institutions (including my own) to figure out how to make oneself relevant to the city you are grounded in. This requires us to think critically about the city we are in, or better said – the city we are a part of. What is that city really like? How do we act within it, both as reflectors of its character and agitators of its operation, in a way that makes it richer and more complete? How does the art we produce and present engage the public as citizens rather than only audience?

I pass the platform now to Kwende. I don’t expect him to answer these questions, as they are certainly a bit ambitious, but perhaps to consider the direction and growth of the cultural life of this city as he sees it. I look forward to reading his feedback, and I hope you return next week to do the same!

Ryan Stec
Artistic Director

PS Here are some links to local blogs and other research sites that consider ideas about Creative City and city branding.

Local Bloggers on Ottawa’s rank on the Creative City Hit list


Introduction to research paper outline resistance to City Branding in Hamburg, Germany

Not in our name, Hamburg resistance position

Historical analysis of NYC branding efforts of the 1970s

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7 Responses to “We are not a creative city!”

  1. Whether or not Ottawa is a “creative city” or not, one thing I feel certain of is that Ottawa is a city with a lot of creative people.

    So much so, that I have (anecdotaly, though repeatedly) experienced that a few ratios are off. The first being the ratio of creators/producers to venues, often resulting in creators vying and competing for exhibition and performance spaces and opportunities. The second is the ratio of creators to general audiences, again leading to creators and event organisers competing for similar or the same audiences — it often feels like everyone is competing for the same small slice of pie.

    I’ve experienced this both in the electronic music and art scenes (though I can’t directly comment on the indie music of other scenes).

    Strangely, also, when you consider that Ottawa is a relatively small city, is that I’ve repeatedly encountered silos (groan) where organised creatives are duplicating previous or parallel efforts of other groups, totally unaware of each other despite targeting similar audiences.

    All that said, something does seem to be percolating here, w/ the recent arrival of several new festivals, galleries, and cool coffee places.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series!


  2. Bravo Ryan,
    A discussion that has been plaguing me for years. Why is Ottawa so difficult to live in as an artist over the long term? Who are we as a city? What are the dreams and desires of Ottawans? Does art matter to them or is it superfluous?

    Why do we have to live in a perpetual state of cultural adolescence? I have a feeling that this city views it’s own as “not good enough to make it elsewhere” and that this relegates us to this attitude of irrelevance.

    As a professional theatre artist for over 35 years I have struggled with these questions. It never seems to change.

    So, I look forward to hearing the discussion.

  3. Caleb Abbott says:

    Very much looking forward to this. Thanks Ryan. Well put and thought provoking. Legitimacy through economic viability, definitely a seductive trend.
    I look forward to Kwende’s reply.

  4. Cathy Shepertycki says:

    Great discussion – looking forward to the dialogue…

    Art and culture are starbursts – immensely more powerful than sheer economics – and yes can be irreparably damaged if attached solely to economic valuation

    As a recognized pillar unto itself, cultural life needs to be outlined/described for its CULTURAL value first – as a centrepiece

    Valuing in neighbourhoods and villages where people live, connect, play… valued for inventiveness, empathy, sometimes aesthetic, and always big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in a place…

    Valued for capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative about a place (rooted in authenticity and branching out in the imagination), and valued for the ability to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new…

    Really about who we are, where we’ve been, where we aspire to go as people – as communities – as society – as a collective of diverse places surrounded by other places north, south, west and east…

    Opportunity and aspiration

    Always looking forward.

  5. Luc Lalande says:

    Ryan thank you initiating this much needed debate with a provocative and insightful post. If the intent of your title We Are Not a Creative City was to play on the branding of “Creative City” then you have framed the debate as it should be. Your question “What might we be losing when the cultural life of the city becomes a component of its brand, rather than integral to the life of its citizens?” is spot on.

    Thank you for also sharing some web links relevant to the topics in your post. Another source that I found useful is the brief “From Creative Economy to Creative Society” authored by Susan Seifert and Mark Stern, University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project:

    Over to you Kwende!

  6. […] can read the first post in the series from myself here and Kwende follow up in a previous post […]

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