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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan arts economy is more than a tip jar, but it can be even bigger

I live to watch people's faces upon learning that I am a writer and my husband a musician. The raised eyebrows. The tilted heads. The inevitable "Oh!" or "Wow!" At once, the average person is impressed, surprised, confused and visibly sympathetic. How gutsy, romantic or fun, they might say, while clearly wondering what it must be like to live under a bridge.

We, in fact, do not live under a bridge. My husband and I live in a nice little house near downtown Ann Arbor, where we spend our days typing, clicking and strumming our way to a middle class income. It's as fun as any job is for someone who loves what they do. It's not (sorry guys) romantic. We juggle clients, manage assignments and try to finish up in time to have dinner together at least three nights a week. People call us artists, but that always feels like farce to me. We're just freelancers. We're creative entrepreneurs offering our services to the market.

And we're not alone. There are 17 million full-time freelancers in the U.S., and "artists" play no small role in that economic force, being 3.5 times more likely to be self-employed than other professionals. In 2011 The Atlantic called this freelance surge "the Industrial Revolution of our time."

It's time we stopped looking at "the arts" as a touchy feely afterthought and recognized the sector for what it is: an economic opportunity of which Michigan should be scrambling to take advantage. If we want to attract young professionals to our state, we must invest in the creative economy. From fine artists to computer programmers to marketers, creative entrepreneurship is becoming the vehicle millennials across a number of industries are choosing to advance their careers. Here are a few things Michigan could be doing to advance our commitment to keeping and attracting them here.

Creative entrepreneurship education

I'm not surprised when a baby boomer is left standing mouth agape at the idea that a freelance writer and musician could be real jobs for normal people. It was shocking to me, however, when my husband and I were recently invited to speak about creative entrepreneurship at Western Michigan University, and a number of students confessed to wishing they were majoring in a creative field, but they didn't know how their interest in photography or fine art could translate into a job.

No one had ever told these educated young adults that being an "artist" is a business like any other. Arts funding is already dwindling in our schools, but this is a separate issue. In order to choose a creative career, students must not only be given the opportunity to appreciate the arts, but also to understand what a creative career looks like.

Build creative infrastructure

Dearborn is doing something amazing right now. They've partnered with the national nonprofit ArtSpace to turn their city hall campus into a live/work community for artist with 46 residential units and entrepreneurial, community and marketplace space. Elsewhere in the country, ArtSpace projects have have been proven to reanimate historic structures, bring underutilized spaces back onto tax rolls, boost property values and attract businesses to the area.

This is what creative infrastructure looks like. Where else could we do this in Michigan? What other creative professionals could benefit from such an environment? Writers? Designers? Dancers? Musicians? If a number of these projects sprung up in a number of our cities, just think what the collective impact could be.

Public transportation

Creative millennials don't want cars. In so many other places across the country, they don't need them. For many creative professionals, their local market is as large as their transportation footprint. If a jewelry designer in Royal Oak can only get around Royal Oak, she can make sales online or in Royal Oak. If she can easily get around the entire metro region, her local market can grow exponentially, and so can its economic impact.

I recently interviewed a Brookings Institution fellow for a story on the urbanization of the Metro Detroit suburbs, a phenomenon that is improving walkability and livability in cities across the nation. Of southeast Michigan he said, "You are the last metro area to have rail transit in the country. You're so far behind."

Southeast Michigan ranks 25 in the list of urbanized metro areas in the country. To young creative professionals, that means there are 24 cities that better fit their needs. We can do better.

Incentivize creative careers

I've long been impressed with Michigan's commitment to business development through agencies and organizations like the MEDC and MI-SBDC. Freelancers could use exactly those types of resources. The National Governor's Association, in fact, recommends states offer support to individual entrepreneurs with grant programs, networks and educational services. The American Planning Association urges planners to "make deliberate connections between the arts and culture sector and other sectors" and stimulate economic development by building high density areas for creative professionals.

In order to be a national standout and truly attract the young, ambitious members of the growing creative economy, we need to do these things and more. Could we offer freelancers better incentives than any other state? What programs or resources could make a successful creative professional, who could truly work from anywhere, choose our state as a home base? The possibilities are as limitless as our willingness to innovative. Michigan needs to be as creative in laying the foundation for a burgeoning freelance economy as the creative entrepreneurs we should be aiming to attract.

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