Austin has a buoyant creative economy, which grew by 25% during the recession. Kevin Johns (City of Austin’s Director of the Economic Development Department), who describes culture in Austin as “music, arts, creativity and curiosity”, thus sees the city’s creative economy as “the secret ingredient to our prosperity”.
Originating in the settling of Texas in the 1830s, Austin today is the 11th most populous city in the United States. It developed as a relatively spread out city, with a modest urban core surrounded by expansive suburban areas. However, downtown living is on the increase. One programme for example provided incentives for building residential units in the city centre, and an increasing number of skyscrapers are being built there. Austin is one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, drawing in people attracted by up until recently comparatively low housing costs, low unemployment rates and the sunny climate. Indeed, the city is known as a regional centre for high-tech companies and emerging hub for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, with many companies locating their headquarters, regional offices or development centres there.
In addition, according to Gerardo Interiano (Head of External Affairs, Google), “Austin has a phenomenal culture and one that attracts many individuals to move to our city”. The city’s cultural offer includes both established cultural organisations as well as creative hubs, where creatives live, work and showcase their work. In addition to fixed cultural events such as Austin Fashion Week, Austin Poetry Slam, Art Fair, the city is home to a mix of more informal, fringe activities that are key to its overall cultural offer. Austin is perhaps most well-known for its live music scene, hosting both the longest-running concert music programme on American television, Austin City Limits, as well as being home to one of the highest numbers of music venues per capita of all U.S. cities. Indicatively, Austin has a buoyant creative economy, which grew by 25% during the recession. Kevin Johns (City of Austin’s Director of the Economic Development Department), who describes culture in Austin as “music, arts, creativity and curiosity”, thus sees the city’s creative economy as “the secret ingredient to our prosperity”. Austin was also recently designated as City of Media Arts within UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, which it is hoped will contribute to building up valuable relationships between Austin’s creative sector and the rest of the world.
However, the city’s social, cultural and economic changes also bring challenges with them. Commentators cite an urban infrastructure that has not developed in line with the city’s growth, resulting in heavy traffic and a drop in affordable housing. As Robert Faires (Arts Editor, Austin Chronicle) points out, “these problems […] damage the quality of life on a day-to-day basis […], but long-term, they also drive lower-, middle-, and upper-middle class residents and small businesses out of the central city, pushing already high economic segregation to crisis levels”. Inevitably, this is also impacting the city’s cultural sector, making it harder for creative people to find affordable space to live and work, and thus making the sector increasingly vulnerable to competition. Already, “artists are leaving, [and] if they aren’t leaving they are spreading out to the outskirts and dividing into smaller and smaller pockets”, despite the fact that, “artists need to be around one another and their creative output needs to be accessible to a broad and diverse audience” (Shea Little, Big Medium & East Austin; West Austin Artist Studios tours). At the same time, there is concern that increasing numbers of touring shows coming to Austin are proving a challenging competition for local events or organisations, with the danger of making “those acts seem more important than the local programming” (Raul Alvarez, Executive Director of Community Advancement Network).
“While Ballet Austin provides competitive salaries, the cost of living is so great that it becomes a real drawback when artists are making professional choices. This divide doesn’t just affect artists, but is at the heart of whether our city will continue to be competitive in other sectors as well.” (Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin)
More broadly, such developments are beginning to change the feel and atmosphere of a city traditionally known for its vibrant fringe culture and ‘alternative’ communities – precisely the attributes which help to make Austin so attractive. This may mean that “everyone who came here to live in a creative and culturally unique city will ultimately realize that it’s no longer the city they thought it was” (Shea Little). Already, it is resulting in many locals feeling increasingly alienated by the city’s rapid profit-focused development and increasing homogenization. Indicatively, popular local movement Keep Austin Weird, which began as a way to promote independent local businesses, has now come to represent a wider popular movement in support of the city’s eccentricity and diversity.
Commentators highlight the potentially important role that culture and the creative industries can play in helping Austin address some of its challenges. As Shea Little sums up, “culture is the opportunity, and losing our culture is the challenge.” The sector is seen as a vehicle to promote ongoing innovation and creativity across a variety of fields, due to the “interconnectivity of culture and thinking/ problem solving” (Stephen Mills) – crucial to driving progress in the city. Robert Faires also highlights the overarching role of culture in improving residents’ quality of life: “art, performance, literature, design, cuisine – all of these […] can provide relief from the stresses of daily existence, can beautify the city, can entertain, can nourish the spirit, can provide connections to history and heritage, can bring people together”. Indeed, several commentators highlight the value of culture to people’s identities and roles as citizens. They point out that it can draw the many ethnically diverse communities into the city’s civil society, and the benefits this can bring to trade networks, entrepreneurship, tourism, and niche markets. As Gerardo Interiano says, “a positive culture can allow for innovative ideas to rise and for more collaboration to occur. It’s a key component in making sure that entities are working and thinking outside of the box.” Given this, it is important to see culture as integral to a variety of policy areas:
“Education, food, health, housing, transportation, are major and top priorities for all cities, culture should be integrated into each one of these areas. Culture should not be prioritized into a list of needs, it should be integral to life and all aspects of quality of living.” (Shea Little)
Supporting Austin’s cultural and creative sector going forwards, commentators thus particularly raise the need to continue “supporting programming that is ethnically diverse [and which] demonstrates that the City values diversity and embraces all communities” (Raul Alvarez); as well as helping creative communities in terms of affordable housing and work spaces, and the promotion of local programming and talent. To help address such issues, the City has recently undertaken extensive research: The City Economic Development Department’s Cultural Arts Division is completing a needs assessment of Austin’s creative sector and a cultural assets mapping project, to help determine where clusters of cultural assets are located. The Music and Entertainment Division meanwhile recently completed a census of the local music community. These studies will help inform future policies and ensure that the City continues to offer sustainable support to the sector.
At the same time, the Cultural Arts Division is leading on the development of a Creative Economic Priority Program as part of Imagine Austin, a 30-year master plan for the city, which aims to find the best ways to support and enhance Austin’s creative sector going forward. Alongside this, the City is focusing on actively supporting the creative community, both through addressing its housing challenges - by advising on the revision of the city’s land development code; as well as through individual projects such as thinkEAST, which is developing creative sector space as part of new real estate development – and by working with local educational institutions to improve creatives’ workforce skills and provide better opportunities for those interested in creative sector careers. Ultimately, the aim is to make Austin a place where the opportunities for a successful career as a creative are and continue to be strong.
Perspectives on the city taken from World Cities Culture Report 2015
Interviewees: Kevin Johns (Director of the Economic Development Department, City of Austin); Raul Alvarez (Executive Director of Community Advancement Network); Gerardo Interiano (Head of External Affairs – Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Google, Austin); Shea Little (Big Medium & East Austin and West Austin Artist Studios tours); Stephen Mills (Ballet Austin); Robert Faires (Arts Editor, Austin Chronicle)