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Learning from Andy Warhol

Friday, September 7, 2007

A new book argues that culture, done right, can be a cash cow for cities.

The Warhol EconomyThe Warhol Economy by Elizabeth Currid (Princeton University Press, 2007).

On a Saturday afternoon in April, Elizabeth Currid, a doctoral student at Columbia by day and a club girl by night, set out for the Marc Jacobs boutique in the West Village. The agenda was a combination of shopping and dissertation research, marred only by her inability to find the place. She stopped a promisingly well-dressed man on the street to ask for directions. He not only knew where the place was, but turned out to be a friend of Jacobs, whom Currid had been trying to reach for an interview for her dissertation. That chance encounter gave Currid her interview—and a prime example to support the argument of her new book, The Warhol Economy: Dense cities are breeding grounds for art and culture because they enable a vibrant social scene and nightlife, where chance encounters often seal business deals.

I was a doctoral student in New York City during the same years as Currid, but I didn't shop at Marc Jacobs and was never very good at the nightclub scene. I just didn't feel at ease wearing next-to-nothing on a cold evening, balancing in three-inch heels and trying to look cute enough to be let into the "it" (or in my case, the used-to-be-very-"it"-but-now-only-sort-of-"it") club. Still, I took it for granted that interesting things, fabulous shopping and exciting people would always surround me. I felt pretty good about being geographically close to cool. And that feeling, Currid argues, corresponds to something economically significant.

The take-away message of this doctoral-dissertation turned semi-popular book is that art and culture—and the nightclubs, catwalks and gallery openings that are so much a part of those industries—are an integral part of a city's growth and vitality. Put simply, in The Warhol Economy, Currid seeks out to prove the economic and social importance of New York City's amorphous cultural pursuits.

The Warhol Economy—with a nod to Andy Warhol's ability to encourage the intersection between art and commerce—encourages urban planners and policymakers to take notice of the creative industries: Fashion, art and cultural industries combined are the fourth largest employer in New York City, just behind management, professional services and finance. Fashion shows bring out-of-towners to the city. Broadway attracts millions. And in this hip world, deals are not only made in the boardroom—they are also made on the dance floor, argues Currid, so nightlife and vibrant social networks are crucial for these industries to flourish.

Interviews with bold-faced names including designers Diane Von Furstenberg and Zac Posen, musicians The Talking Heads and club owner of the legendary CBGB's, Hilly Kristal, make The Warhol Economy an engaging cross between the academic and the gossipy—like an intellectualized Page Six of The New York Post. Even for the reader who has never been to New York City, there's a sense that you've just sat down at the popular table in the lunchroom.

In this hip world, deals are not only made in the boardroom—they are also made on the dance floor. Nightlife and vibrant social networks are crucial for these industries to flourish.

While at times she is breathless about the fabulousness of the fashion and art scene in New York City, Currid concedes that a measure of greatness can be achieved by other metropolises, if city planners accept that art and culture matter to economic growth, and do what they can to foster the organic environments where hip ideas form. By understanding how it happens in New York City, Currid suggests, you can bring the "culture of cool" to a city near you.

Here's a primer:

First, encourage a happening night life and don't crack down on nightclubs: Nightclubs like Lotus and Bungalow 8—or whatever the cooler club-of-the-moment is any instant—are the new sites of business, where creative minds set the trends over cosmopolitans at 4 a.m., just as hedge fund partners might close a deal over lunch at the 21 Club. As in all industries, people you meet socially become the people you do business with. And in this business, it just so happens that networking happens very late at night, where some or all of the interested parties are drunk or on drugs.

Currid takes a sympathetic view of nightclubs, brushing off complaints about the noise, litter and disorderly behavior surrounding many of these establishments in the wee hours of the morning. Indeed, she argues that cities should actively support nightclubs as a breeding ground for creativity and a net positive to the city's economy and livability. While her thesis is sound—the cultural economy is taste-driven, not performance driven, so social dynamics play a determining role—a larger discussion of the social ills of alternative business venues would make her argument even more persuasive.

Second, offer formal art and cultural accreditation programs: Artists need a stamp of approval so they can sell their art on the mass market. And the cultural world Currid describes is not for starving artists. Martinis are $15 and cover charges and table service can make an evening out a several-hundred-dollar proposition. This is the commercial art and culture scene, the fashionistas who have "made it" enough to party alongside models and wealthy investment bankers. By the time you’ve finished with her book, you might think Currid wants the state to pick up bar tabs for aspiring nightlife mavens.

Third, understand that cities that make room for art and culture also increase tourism: According to economists Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, ours is now an “experience economy,” where goods and services are sold by wrapping them in the package of memories—concerts, fashion shows, trendy restaurants or music festivals. The art and culture industry of New York City understands how to combine the fungibility of commodities and the memorable nature of experiences to make even the least cool among us feel a part of the city's trends.

While not every city can cultivate the cool-factor that New York City has during the last century, The Warhol Economy picks out cities like San Francisco, Santa Fe and Chicago as prime targets for future cultural development. Currid's memo to city planners: Support creativity wherever it happens.

Recently, I moved to Iowa City, a college town full of alternative music and art galleries. While The Warhol Economy made me a bit homesick for the buzz of New York City, it's encouraging to see Currid's advice in action: Low-cost housing, nightclub-friendly local ordinances, and an always-young University population make Iowa City an inviting town for writers, artists and musicians at the beginning of their careers. And here, with no lines at nightclubs and a just-emerging sense of fashion, I might have a shot at being one of the cool kids.

Dr. Whelan is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, and the author of Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women.

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