Renaissance and Recovery: Why the Arts Matter for Michigan

"Only by understanding the rise of [the Creative Class] and its values can we begin to understand the sweeping and seemingly disjointed changes in our society and begin to shape our future more intelligently."

 --Richard Florida

In recent years, economic stressors have pushed several venerable Michigan arts communities into watershed crises: some have narrowly avoided total dissolution while others have risen triumphantly.  Amidst the state's economic struggles, leaders have been debating the role of the arts and culture in Michigan's economic recovery. Most recently, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has considered selling part of the Detroit Institute of Arts' assets. This may not prove to be legally feasible, but if it does, such a liquidation would destroy Detroit's cultural and economic renaissance. Here's why.

Sociologists show that, when it comes to arts and culture, no one-to-one correspondence exists between dollar value and overall value. That's because cultural institutions and art provide many long-term benefits that elude short-term calculations. For instance, sociologist Richard Florida suggests that urban regeneration requires a healthy, vibrant "creative class." Not only does the creative class produce culture, art, music, and trendy neighborhoods, it also provides an enriched living experience for the surrounding residents. We cannot expect great business innovations to take place in a city without world-class art, music, and dance.   

Furthermore, the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu revolutionized the way that we think about the arts, culture, and social standing.  Bourdieu argued that economic disparity -- narrowly conceived -- cannot alone explain persistent social inequality. He insisted that we expand our dollars-and-cents understanding of capital to include equally powerful (though less recognizable) symbolic and cultural forms of capital. Without cultural capital -- even if you're comfortable economically -- you won't be able to ascend to the highest strata of society.

This is where I would ask Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, as well as Governor Snyder, to expand their understandings of capital. Though art has a price tag, its actual worth as cultural capital goes far beyond its cash-in value. Rather, art is a complex commodity, and one that is more powerful when we have ample reserves. Like gold and precious metals, liquidating cultural assets leaves us bereft of the most fundamental of coffer reserves. But unlike other commodities, when Detroit recovers, it will never be able to amass these cultural reserves again; the startup and infrastructure costs would be prohibitive. By thinking about this crisis as sociologists -- as well as accountants -- I hope that we realize that the arts must play a central role in Michigan's economic recovery.

John J. Corso teaches art history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He strives to write criticism that is 'partisan, passionate, and political.'