Ottawa: Where strange things can grow

Hey Folks,

Thanks for the platform Ryan! It’s a bit of an awkward one for me, I must admit. Some of my city hall colleagues have enjoyed a bit of a chuckle as a result of it. Anyone familiar with my blogging on Richard Florida’s Creative Class Exchange would know why. Ryan is asking some of the very questions that I would regularly challenge that conversation with as the only practicing artist regularly contributing. Now I am still a practicing artist, but in the daytime I do this city hall thing and live both inside and outside of the institution. I appreciate that Ryan is not expecting answers to the very incisive questions he posed, because I’m not sure I can answer them. What I can do is offer a bit of insight on them from this in-between perspective that I have, and connect that to my impressions of where things could go here culturally.

Just to frame this up a bit, Ryan is far from alone in his questions. From the most glib and facetious, to the more fastidiously researched, within the discourse going on across the continent and the world there are serious questions being asked about the ramifications of the Richard Florida and the Creative Class Theory on the cultural sector. In some ways the Rise of the Creative Class was a bit of a Silent Spring moment for arts and heritage organizations. In some ways though, it was more like a shotgun wedding.  An economists theory and a sector’s adolescence, with the historical moment holding the gun. There is always a context for decisions that seem baffling in retrospect though. On the 10 year anniversary of the union, it might be a good time to back it up and think about how all this happened. Beep, Beep, Beep.


In our case the context was the great reset that Richard alludes to in his less popular, but probably more prescient and well framed book. It is true that modes of production, and in turn ways of determining value, were totally shifting, and that economic development could no longer solely focus on trying to attract industry in the traditional ways. It had to consider the experience of the city and the capacity of the people in that city to creatively contribute to it. At the same time, in North America much of the post-war urban infrastructure was reaching the end of its life cycle. Bob Costas himself could not have called the way that the cultural institutions would run with this. But what were we running with? What were we committing ourselves to as a sector?

As it turns out, it’s indicators and quantitative measurement. The creative class theory offered a quantitative way to think about the impact of artists and arts institutions in regional growth because of the way they factored into the composition of  theory’s key indicators. This led to a small explosion of interest from economists concerned with the future of cites, and the formal implication of the arts and heritage in the emerging placemaking discourse. This would be a good thing, because the resources flowing from this connection would provide big help to places that were struggling to create a place for culture within their municipal structures, and helped places that were further along in that process to get some major things done. The non-profit world was innovating as well. What could go wrong here? Culture was to be central in the renewal of the city, and the creative class theory was going to give us the tools to measure our impact and make sophisticated arguments about our value as a part of that process.

How is it that 10 years later, Florida’s chief statistician would be making apologies to  artists. The scene is played out in a very  thorough analysis of the current state of the discourse over at, one of the blogs on the frontier of this conversation. Ironically, the problem is measurable outcomes, or rather the way we measure them. Towards the end of the article the point is made that the issue might come down to the fact that culture is complex. This is something that I encountered first in 2008 as a journalist for the Ottawa Xpress (R.I.P). In his book The Other Side of the Coin David Orrell, mathematician and economist realized that much of traditional economics was resistant to complexity.

It’s been totally out of touch with the new kinds of developments in math, which have been happening in recent decades, such as complexity theory and network theory,” says Orrell. “And it’s odd, because if there’s any system that seems to be clearly driven by things like networks, for example, the economy is it.”

Did the great transformation happen to everything but the discipline measuring it? In some ways yes. While the wave of interest in culture from economics was what the sector needed to be invited to the greater conversation on city building where it belonged, the capacity to capture the full impacts of the arts and heritage might be beyond economics  as it is popularly practiced.

These concerns are sagely voiced in an article posted by Grantmarks in the Arts. While it is from the perspective of a grant maker, I imagine that my managers are faced with the same things with respect to accountability:

civic leaders justifiably want to allocate limited resources wisely — the most bang for their buck. But will the need for “quick wins” mean that areas with the most severe challenges (those with great potential but longer-term payoffs) are passed over?

And more  to the point of Ryan’s original question, from the same article:

Lastly, what about art? Artists and arts and cultural organizations need not be confined to an “input” in a grand theory of change…the desired goals will vary from project to project, but failing to consider arts impacts is like a doctor taking a patient’s temperature but not her pulse.


Thankfully her pulse is pounding in Ottawa these days, and a different historical moment is upon us. One that might be better suited to the kind of city that Ottawa is. Without reiterating the words in the city’s action plan for Arts, Heritage and Culture this city is a very unique place where very unique things emerge. Within my discipline, music, just look at what’s happened in the last 10 years here. DJ Drastik, The Jokers of the Scene, Bonjay. Flight Distance, The Sound of Lions, Jesse Greene, Dynamite Motel. The Mashed Potato Mashers. What the hell are The Peptides?! How could all of that emerge from an uncreative place?The gaming industry is feeling it too. “Ottawa’s pretty unique in that I really don’t feel that much of a divide between the studios, the indies, and the academics,” Ledoux wrote. I’m fortunate enough to have experienced that with TIMEKODE, an experience that has made me rethink the potential of this city.

When I think about this Ottawa’s identity (and, for the record, I think of branding as a technique for marketing identity), I think it is incredibly creative, but on its own terms like many of its artists. We’ve seen that one size does not fit all with this stuff.  While growth of export based industry is important, there are other ways of thinking about growth that might be more participatory and prescient for this city and the kind of talent it cultivates. Let’s focus on here. And without rescinding the access that the creative class discourse has given culture to city building it might be time to find new ways to measure its impact that are more appropriate to the kind of phenomena culture is. When I see forums like the Art and Science Journal growing in Ottawa and preparing to go to print I’m really encouraged for the future of this place. The next few years will be exciting, no doubt.

And with that I pass it back. Happy long weekend all!!

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2 Responses to “Ottawa: Where strange things can grow”

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

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