It’s the (Cultural) Economy, Stupid

New Orleans is known for its culture, but that culture is being threatened, and its loss could cost our economy dearly.
Portraits by Greg Miles


Jeanne Nathan and Kurt Weigle are, in many ways, very different people, but they are united in their mission to see the culture of New Orleans promoted and celebrated as an official part of the city’s brand.

A New York native, Nathan worked for decades as a journalist, including as a broadcast journalist for WDSU-TV, as well as a public relations practitioner, before joining with Bob Tannen and other artists in 1976 to form the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in 1976. Nathan is currently the executive director of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, which she founded along with a group of artists and arts supporters in 2008. The group’s first project was the Studio at Colton, which contributed to the development of the St. Claude arts district. Over more than four decades she has launched numerous cultural events, along with the careers of many local artists, while working tirelessly to bring attention to the importance of New Orleans’ cultural community.

Kurt Weigle hails from Michigan, where he earned a master’s degree in urban planning. He has spent the last 16 years as president and CEO of the Downtown Development District (DDD), an economic development organization that focuses on place-based strategies to retain and attract industries to New Orleans. Under his leadership, Downtown has become the center of the city’s tech growth, has welcomed two new hospitals and over $7 billion in new real estate development, and has doubled its population.

Decades before the massive post-Katrina growth of both Downtown and the creative industry, Nathan and Weigle discovered they shared a common passion for the importance of arts and culture that stemmed from their home towns.

“I came from Detroit, which of course is known for Motown, but it was so much more, too,” said Weigle. It was the home of techno and electronic music. It was this cultural hub and I was always frustrated when I was there that the business community did not get behind that, did not seem to understand the value of it. You had this worldwide brand that you’re just letting sit there. So when I got to New Orleans, which has an even bigger international brand in culture, I said, ‘Why are we not doing more of it here?'”

Nathan shared the same feelings when she arrived in New Orleans.

“I came here first in 1972 doing political work and, having been in New York and being so familiar with Soho, I remember coming down for some reason on a bus down Camp street and looking at it thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have been in the heart of the business district and this place is dead. What is wrong here? Where are the arts? Why aren’t the arts capitalizing on being so adjacent to the business community?’ That was what fired me up.”

While the DDD and CANO have been working together since for decades, spurred by a recent explosion of cities throwing resources into their cultural economies, Nathan and Weigle are now working together to launch a comprehensive study to better understand the scope and depth of New Orleans’ cultural economy. The result, they hope, will be a strategic plan developed with the help of other municipal, nonprofit, economic development and cultural interests that finally effectively positions New Orleans in the role it was meant to be — as one of the world’s leading cultural centers.


Post-Katrina Creative Boom

Between 2005 and 2016, the total number of jobs in the cultural industries in New Orleans increased by 59%.

Source: 7th New Orleans Cultural Economy Snapshot


What is the cultural economy? Who are we talking about?

Jeanne Nathan: I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not just visual and performing arts. It’s pretty much all of the disciplines that require a lot of creative thinking. That includes, design, architecture, interior design, landscape design, industrial design, graphic design, any of the more commercial uses of art-thinking tech. A lot of the tech people will like to isolate tech, but tech is a platform. And what is it a platform for? Content. And where does content come from? The creative industry.

Kurt Weigle: Think about a video game. We always think about the coding that goes into it, but the actual interface with the customer is designed, right? You’ve got to have the artists to produce that content.


How big is the cultural economy in this region?

KW: Well, look at the importance of hospitality to our economy. A large part of the reason we are a hospitality draw is because of things like our culinary arts, architecture and music. You could say that our entire hospitality economy is based on cultural industries. That’s one of the reasons why this is so important to the DDD. Downtown New Orleans is the largest job center in not just the region, but in the entire state of Louisiana. We can only maintain that if we continue to invest in industries in which we’ve got some sort of competitive advantage.

It’s like if you were a farmer and your biggest cash crop was soybeans. Would you decide not to fertilize your field and just let it ride? Of course not. But that to me is generally what we’ve been doing in New Orleans for decades now when it comes to our cultural economy, and it doesn’t make any sense. When you talk to people around the world, they understand and respect our brand as being a cultural hub. This is what people know about us. Why would we not invest in something where we’re starting out with such strong competitive advantage?


How specfically can we support our cultural economy?

JN: I’ve made the argument that one of the things that we need more than anything else, is more money infused into the marketing of what’s happening here culturally — the CAC, the Ogden, Ashé, St. Claude Avenue, you know, more specific support to arts organizations and artists is really critical.


Where do you see that support coming from?

KW: When you look at places that have come up with a strong vision for driving this part of the economy and have a strong plan, oftentimes they have a dedicated service department, right? When you’ve got a dedicated source of revenue to do that, that’s why you do it, because you’re investing in your top assets.

JN: It’s just that: It is literally assigning a new revenue source that can support the operating and marketing, operating of arts institutions in venues and direct marketing for events, artists and organizations. The last I checked, Louisiana ranked 26th in the nation when it comes to supporting the arts. Think about that. We’re talking here about how worldwide we have the image and the brand of being this important cultural force and we’re 26th in the country. There’s obviously a disconnect.


According to CANO’s seventh New Orleans Cultural Economy Snapshot, post-Katrina, between 2005 and 2016, the number of jobs in the cultural industries increased by 59%. What did that look like? What sectors increased the most?

JN: First of all, let me be clear that those numbers come from the city of New Orleans. We actually believe that the numbers are even higher, much higher. And one of the things that we’re hoping to do going forward is find ways to count deeper. And that’s going to require really getting to creatives who are not on the books because those numbers are based primarily on Department of Labor statistics which will count an artist as a server in a restaurant if that’s where they currently receive a majority of their income.

Where was that growth? I say across all fields. There’s more theater in this city now than ever. There are more visual arts galleries in the cities than ever.

St. Claude Avenue, for example, was [an]absolutely dead-in-the-water area for all the time I lived in New Orleans until after Katrina. But getting people into those galleries and buying artwork is another part of it. It’s getting people to think about actually buying art. What are the reasons why markets like Los Angeles or New York are stronger for artists? It’s because you have more wealth and people who are more attuned to buying art. You don’t have to be a hedge-fund manager to buy art though. If you can buy a suit, you can buy art.


If we have a strong cultural community, what is the problem?

KW: We know for a fact that a lot of the culture bearers in this city are living on very meager resources. They’re living in places where they could be under threat within the next year of being driven out of their neighborhoods by rising rents, for instance. That’s the kind of thing we’ve got to pay attention to because if we drive them all out to Slidell because they can’t afford to live in the city, for instance, that is not good for us.

A lot of it may be just give them more income by selling more of their craft, whatever that may be. So they can afford a higher rent. I’m not necessarily saying we need to control the rents. I’m saying we need to put more money in the pockets of our culture bearers, of our artists in general to allow them to continue to be an integral part of our community.

JN: One of the dilemmas of the art world is that when artists move into a neighborhood, it changes the dynamics and the housing values. Next thing you know, a house that might’ve sold in Marigny or the Bywater for $40,000 is now $400,000. When that happens, it gets harder for artists to stay here.


According to another CANO report, more than 60 cities have initiatives aimed at enhancing their attractiveness to creatives. Who’s doing it that we should really be looking at and saying, “This is are our competition and they’re jumping ahead?”

JN: Cities like Denver, Cleveland, Jackson, Mississippi, Birmingham, Phoenix — they’re all chasing the creative industries. You have a level of competition that did not exist 10 years ago. We have to really pay attention and we don’t have a lot of time to catch up. Unlike other industries, you can’t push creative work offshore. It’s place-based, so it’s all about making sure that your place is welcoming.

Take a city like Birmingham, which has made this really incredible, very intentional effort to recognize the creative industry and grow it, just like they were very intentional about attracting the steel industry at one point from Pennsylvania. That industry has since gone offshore, so they had to replace it. They’ve replaced it first with the medical industry, and now they’re going after the creatives.

KW: We may argue that a place like Birmingham has 1/10 the resources we have, right? You may not be far off if you said that in terms of cultural resources. But what they have very clearly that we do not yet have — they have a shared vision between the business community, the artists, all their culture bearers and the elected officials. They have a story and they’re all telling that story. And that’s extraordinarily powerful. So why would we not — with so many more resources — bring our entire community together… to  a common vision, a common story, and then start telling that story for the world in a better way?


How important is the creative economy for businesses looking to recruit employees?

JN: There was a study done — I want to say it was in 1990 in New York [University] at the Stern School of Business — on why companies choose to come to or stay in a city. There were two top factors. The first was where the CEO lives. No. 2 was the cultural resources of the city. This was partially the lifestyle issue of having theater and museums and places to go, but right in there with that was the ability for a business to utilize creative talent to promote their business.

KW: Everyone is competing for the best minds, regardless of the field. Well many of those minds can do their work from almost anywhere in the world. They’re not tied to where the iron or the railroads are. So, the places that will win are the places that can give them the quality of life that they demand.


How can businesses help? What kind of things should they be doing?

KW: I think the first thing we all need to do — business, government, the philanthropic community — is we need to have a better understanding of where culture is and how big it is. We can’t come up with a plan for how to support it unless we know where it is and how it works. One of the ideas that Jeanne has promoted that I support strongly is doing a census of the cultural economy in the city. We need support for that and that’s going to take resources, money, largely to hire professionals who have done this sort of thing in other places. That’s a good place to start. What will come from that is a plan.

Beyond that, we’ve got to get our vision straight. We’ve got to have a story that is consistent that we all buy into. When you see this pattern, even in subtle ways repeated throughout the entire community, it really starts to set in. I think that’s what we need. When you see that brand express itself in almost everything the community does, then you’re reinforcing the brand and you’re basically nurturing the next generation. When somebody comes to our town, they may not even be able to verbalize it, but they feel that the arts and culture are important here. That is our hook in them to get them coming back time and time again.

JN: I want to emphasize that we’re at a tipping point, and that there is change occurring. You’ve got GNO Inc., and the music initiative that they’re doing, plus the New Orleans Business Alliance committing. You’ve got an organization called MaCCNO (Musica and Culture Coalition of New Orleans), also looking at the music business. You’ve got The Ella Project and Art’s Council New Orleans.

You’ve also got the city of New Orleans — our mayor for the first time ever had a transition committee called creative industries made up of everybody from culture bearers to people who are professionally working in the creative industries. That was huge. I think the stars are aligned right now. The time is right.



The Creative Economy is a Draw for Homebuyers

38% of U.S. homeowners (50.7 million households) rated living convenient to arts and cultural events as “important” (27%) or “very important”

Those who affirmed the importance of living convenient to arts and cultural events were more likely to be paying a premium for their housing.

Source: 2015 American Housing Survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)



Top 10 Cities with the Most Creative Jobs Per Capita

1. Los Angeles
2. New York
3. Seattle
4. Minneapolis
5. Portland
6. New Orleans
7. Milwaukee
8. Kansas City
9.San Francisco
10. Boston

Source: Creative City Index, 2017

The Cultural Industry — By the Numbers

In 2016, New Orleans’ cultural industries accounted for 37,793 jobs at 1,718 cultural businesses, including 869 restaurants and specialty food stores, 141 art galleries and 136 live music venues. 136 festivals were attended by an estimated 3 million people.

Source: 7th New Orleans Cultural Economy Snapshot