New lens on New York (Warhol Economy Reviewed)

Posted by Kurt Daradics on March 01, 2009

New lens on New York (Warhol Economy Reviewed) by Wendy Waters

Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press, 2007). See also the earlier post, Top Three Reasons to Read the Warhol Economy.

Elizabeth Currid seeks to turn our assumptions about New Yorks economy upside down. Most people assume that New Yorks economic core and global pull comes from its financial core from Wall Street. Currid argues that its true global importance comes from its artistic and creative cluster artists, musicians, fashion designers and writers and the activities that surround them. An assistant professor of urban planning, Currid also wants to make planners recognize the importance of the cultural economy as well as show how this cluster is intricately intertwined within the city almost any policy or action that affects New York, affects the culture cluster.

The main evidence for the cultural economys importance to New Yorks economy is in chapter three. Until then, I was skeptical of her assertions that the arts community mattered that much (a better organizational flow for the book might have been to have made this the first chapter). Using a methodology called location quotient, Currid illustrates that arts and culture workers and the media sector are more concentrated in New York than employees of any other industry when compared to other cities. Among the other evidence Currid cites, she found that New York has been steadily losing its share of US corporate head offices, from holding 31% in 1955, today the entire metro region (which includes parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut) only holds 14%.

Currid provides a focused lens into how the arts and culture community is intricately intertwined with New Yorks history as well as its present. In chapter one she illustrates how, during the late 1960s though early 1980s, when New Yorks economy was struggling and crime was high, the arts flourished. Artists, musicians and related creative types found cheap housing and inexpensive studio space in particular neighborhoods like SoHo. Inexpensive rent also allowed night clubs to flourish in these areas. Since that time, rents have gradually increased, pushing out artists as well as their haunts (the closing of CBGB being the most notable).

The dense concentration of artistic types allowed them to meet, socialize, and cross pollinate ideas as well as promote each others works. Currid has many great stories about how well known artists and musicians got their breaks. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah was a local indie band until David Bowie and Talking Heads David Byrne heard a buzz on the street, went to a show, loved the music, and started telling their friends. Soon Clap Your Hands had a record deal and a tour. Madonna became known, in part, through dating a famous (or infamous) New York graffiti artist. The artistic scene in New York allows this to happen.

The numerous formal and informal and even messy interactions that connect the people and companies within a cluster come alive under Currids direction. Currid offers a detailed, thorough account of how a cluster works at the micro level where people cross over related industries (graffiti artist and fashion designer, for example), cross-pollinate ideas, and work through word of mouth. Artists, musicians, fashion designers, and their media supporters and critics run in the same social circles, attending the same gallery openings or indie band concerts, and frequenting the same night clubs (like the famous CBGB). People and their ideas cross-pollinate in the social, informal milieu. A cool part of the book is how Currid herself became part of her subject the arts network attending gala gallery openings and exclusive parties, talking to people who then introduced her to others. It really is all about who you know.

While she briefly acknowledges the social informal networks in other clusters, Currid downplays its importance outside the culture cluster. However, you can replace the gallery openings in Currids treatment with a golf course or the box suite at a hockey or football game and the process is remarkably similar. Because of the details, students interested in clusters generally should be able to glean some good insights and develop new theories into how they work.

The artistic and creative economy evolved organically in New York. The density of artists allowed them to support and inform each others work and the density attracted more creative people. But how do you preserve the physical milieu in which the arts culture thrives the night clubs, cheap artists studios and housing, galleries, etc. in light of gentrification forces? (Assuming that you can stop or profoundly shape urban evolution and organic change, which Currid does seem to assume).

In her final chapter, Currid offers advice to public policy makers and urban planners. While I commend her for offering ideas to this challenging issue, I found some of Currids suggestions problematic or contradictory. On the one hand, Currid illustrates how the artistic cluster evolved and thrived when more chaos reigned in the 1970s and 1980s. Government wasnt doing much; the city was almost being let go. But later she calls for government intervention.

One solution she suggests is subsidized artist housing. But she also mentioned this exists now, and bankers, lawyers etc. end up living in it. She suggests finding a way to stop non artists from using it. Somehow I dont think most American people especially the free thinking creative types portrayed in the book would accept the level of surveillance on their lives that would be required to make such a policy work.

Something notably absent from Currids otherwise thorough work was what she believed the impact of Guilianis crime-reduction and disorder-reduction policies were on the arts scene. Everywhere in the book she connects the disorder to creativity, and the higher crime to lower rents and the flourishing of the artistic scene.

One characteristic of a good book is that it inspires further thought and research and this book had me thinking about myriad issues on every page. A few bigger questions that come to mind:

  • How do the arts and culture clusters work in other cities?
  • How have other clusters risen and fallen with the economic history and cycles of New York and other cities?
  • She hints that the artistic cluster actually ties in other clusters as well the accountants who know indie music, the lawyer who attends gallery openings. In other cities is there a cluster that connects accountants, lawyers, doctors etc? maybe a sports cluster for example?
  • Can government policy really stop urban evolution? Or shape it?
  • What is the relationship between crime, disorder, and a flourishing arts scene?
Currids evidence leads to a question she doesnt directly address: if we want a thriving artistic economy, should we be wary of policies to bring more order to a city (such as by reducing graffiti, crimes, drug use, etc. ) That might be a tough one to sell to voters.