Pity the poor arts communities in Alberta. They just can’t seem to get the respect they deserve. While the corporate community has for the most part been a great support- er of the arts, many small ”œc” conser- vative ideologues in the province have treated the arts as trivial, a waste of money, and unnecessary.
An overbearing sense of thrift and practicality dominates public attitudes towards the arts. Many individual Albertans have a profound appreciation of the arts, but somehow this has not translated into much support for publicly funding it. Per capita spending on the arts by the Alberta government is among the lowest in the country, and this in a debt-free province awash in surplus cash.
As Alberta’s artists point out, the arts is an economic sector in its own right. They create a product, there is a market for their product, and thou- sands of people are employed and earn wages in that market. Isn’t that reason enough to publicly fund the arts?
Well, no, it isn’t.
The cynic points out that, while they may indeed employ lots of people, the arts are often sustained only with gobs of taxpayers’ dollars. The govern- ment could create the same number of jobs by paying people to dig holes and fill them up again. Certainly govern- ment-funded activities with no pur- pose other than to employ people are neither helpful nor desirable.
But before we discard the arts too quickly, we should consider how they enhance economic productivity and boost output. The arts sector " every- thing from visual arts, performing arts, film, music, dance, and theatre, and so on " contributes to a healthy econo- my in two very important ways.
First of all, it creates desirable ameni- ties that are increasingly required if Alberta intends to play in the world’s big leagues. Consider Calgary, with the second largest concentration of corpo- rate head offices in the country. It is suffering from a shortage of profession- al labour, and if Calgary-based compa- nies are to be world-class businesses, they need to be recruiting top profes- sionals from around the world.
Calgary has a lot going for it in terms of being an appealing place to live " mountains on its doorstep, wonderful green space, a thriving volunteer mental- ity and a great university. These offerings on their own will attract a certain num- ber of people, as will good job prospects.
But if Calgary is to really compete for workers internationally, those amenities alone won’t cut it. The world’s best, brightest, and most high- ly educated professionals and corporate executives will not move to Calgary for NHL hockey. They won’t come for the fresh air or fly-fishing. They won’t even come for the Calgary Stampede.
But suppose how much more mar- ketable Calgary would be if it could add to this list one of the world’s greatest centres for the arts, a stunning architectural mas- terpiece that would put the city on the world’s cultural map " and give it a claim to international stardom for reasons other than cowboys and a rodeo.
A vibrant arts scene is a valuable eco- nomic marketing tool that would give Alberta’s cities a level of cultural sophisti- cation that, by and large, they lack.
The second way the arts boost eco- nomic productivity is in the way they stimulate problem-solving abilities. Thomas Friedman, in his best-selling book The World is Flat, devotes consid- erable attention to Georgia Tech. The school found that by expanding the arts and music programs on campus, their engineering and science students became better problem-solvers. Great technical skills alone are not enough. They need to be accompanied by those critical ”œright-brain” functions " creativity, innovation, imagination and those flashes of genius when the light comes on and the engineer says, ”œI’ve figured out how to solve this problem!”
Isn’t this the essence of the free enterprise system? Solving problems, seeing new ways to do things, and dreaming up great ideas? These aren’t generated by a spreadsheet or a test tube. They come out of the human mind, and if that human mind is trained only in the ”œleft-brain” linear, systematic ways of thinking, those flashes of genius will be pretty thin.
Of course, the benefits of stimulat- ing the ”œright-brain” are intangi- ble in dollar terms. Unless you can prove it in a rigorous cost-benefit analy- sis, business leaders will be skeptical.
Forcing the arts on employees is not the approach. The trick is making sure that the arts, in a variety of forms, are thriving and available within the com- munity. Many companies offer gym memberships to their employees in recognition of the corporate benefits of healthy workers. Why not offer one afternoon off every quarter in order to participate in some artistic event of the worker’s choice? Encourage, don’t force. Treat it as serious professional develop- ment, not as a day to goof off.
The private sector has realized, quite rightly, that enhanced productiv- ity doesn’t happen by chaining work- ers to their desks or force-feeding them more Excel courses. It happens when workers are free of stress, live balanced personal lives, and come to work each day with minds ready to find solutions and think up ideas. Fostering a vibrant arts scene in the community can play a large role in creating " and attract- ing " these kinds of workers.