Creativizing the future

With a leadership race and a looming election, there’s lots of political activity going on. So why is nobody talking about the one thing that could guarantee our future prosperity?

The opening line of a story on VOCM last week said it all:

“You don’t tend to hear much about it, but the province’s film industry is enjoying solid growth.”

And the next line, even more so:

“The Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, Paul Lannon, says this province is in a great position to grow the industry, especially with the number of talented young professionals coming up through the ranks.”

As the PC leadership race winds down, and as parties take that last gulp of air before diving into the build-up for next year’s election campaign, it’s as good a time as ever to ask the question: why don’t we hear much about it? And more importantly, what can we do to change that?

Turning Korean

Korean-American journalist Euny Hong has been doing the media circuit for her impressive new book The Birth of Korean Cool, an analysis of the recent boom in the popularity—and economic value—of Korean pop culture exports around the world. What she discovers is that it’s not just a random fad: the success of K-Pop and other forms of hallyu (‘Korean wave’ — the euphemism for Korean pop culture) is the result of very carefully crafted government policy and intervention into the economy. Her book explores how Korea responded to the economic crises it has encountered in recent years. One of the lessons the Koreans learned, she says, was you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Mega corporations and large scale traditional industries are simply too vulnerable to the unpredictable twists and turns of today’s rapidly changing and globalizing economy.

So they began looking for other opportunities for economic development. And they realized their future potential was not under the ground or in the water or waiting to be built in some factory: it was sitting right in front of them, in the form of the country’s artists and other creative producers. All creative producers required for success was skill and enthusiasm, and they had it in spades. So government recognized it needed to start doing more to cultivate this potential industry.

But can musicians and scriptwriters compete with, you know, big factories and oil rigs? Like really? Hong recounts that one eye-opening moment came when government analysts realized that a single film, Jurassic Park, had generated twice as much revenue as the annual sale of Hyundai cars.

So yes. Creative industries represent.

By pursuing a well thought out series of policies, South Korea has made unbelievable strides in reorienting their economy and in spreading their arts and cultural industries around the world. They’ve concentrated not on cracking the biggest most powerful markets (although they’ve been doing that too) but establishing themselves now in the emerging economies of the future. After all, if Korean soap operas can became the latest rage in Iran and Cuba and Nigeria, there’s no reason a show like Republic of Doyle couldn’t either.

Size doesn’t matter

There are those who might say: well that’s all fine and well, but Korea has a population of millions. We simply can’t operate on that level.

And, as usual, that sort of small-minded thinking is totally wrong. To prove it, we just need to look at Iceland, a country which is in fact even smaller than Newfoundland and Labrador.

A study in 2010 revealed that the creative industries in that country accounted for greater economic activity than agriculture and fisheries combined. They even exceeded construction activity. But it required concentrated effort. Government listened to artists and creative producers and began aligning policy to meet their needs. In addition to tax breaks, other proactive (and much more useful) policies were developed: free office space and resources provided to individuals and companies involved in the creative industries; pairing of creative producers with experienced professionals in export-oriented business fields to develop strategies for promoting Icelandic arts abroad; the building of funds to offer grants and financial support to creative producers. And importantly, an openness to new forms of arts and creativity.

In recent years, revenues from video game production has exploded by over 600 per cent in the country. Most significantly, research indicated that the creative industries remained stable and even expanded during Iceland’s financial collapse, unlike pretty much every other sector of the economy. The collapse of financial institutions might grind factory production and resource extraction to a halt, but it can’t keep an actor off the stage or the music from flowing.

Government is as government does

South Korea and Iceland are examples of the handful of countries which have realized that arts and culture is more than something nice to enjoy on the weekends. It can in fact provide the foundation for an economy; and a strong, sustainable foundation too. But it requires something more than wishful thinking. It requires decisive intervention and action. There has traditionally been an attitude in this province of “Offer tax breaks and they will come”. It’s part and parcel of the old-fashioned 1950s-era attitude that still dominates politics here: an antiquated and anachronistic obsession with the idea that economies ought to run on manufacturing or natural resources, that mega-projects are good things, and that the role of government is to be seen and not heard.

Success in the second decade of the 21st century requires an openness to tossing these attitudes of our grandparents out the window, and acknowledging the world has changed and government needs to be taking the lead in regulating that change in the best interests of our province and the broad goals of social equality and prosperity.

The collapse of financial institutions might grind factory production and resource extraction to a halt, but it can’t keep an actor off the stage or the music from flowing.

In South Korea, for instance—a country that fought an incredibly bloody war with itself ostensibly in the name of defending the free market economy—government has no hesitation about strong-arming big industry into supporting the arts. In the 1990s cinemas were required not only to show certain percentages of local film, but also to direct certain percentages of box office revenue into a fund to support the local film industry (once the film industry was succeeding on its own, those percentages were reduced accordingly). Likewise, the government has worked with private industry to build a $1 billion popular culture development fund, with which it expects to produce cultural exports worth $10 billion in five years.

This is taking the arts seriously.

When South Korea was trying to break into the broader Asian television market, it realized a key step was getting its TV dramas on the Hong Kong television networks, which would reach much bigger audiences across Asia. So it leaned on Korean firms to commit to buying ads on networks that took the Korean programs.

Strategies differ depending on place, but the point is that government needs to be involved and active. In that regard, providing support to Republic of Doyle, as ours has, makes some degree of sense, but it’s a half-baked approach that needs to be refined. It’s not just a matter of giving money; government officials at every level need to be out pushing our cultural productions around the country and around the world. They need to be convincing—whether it requires cajoling or coercing—all those energy companies into pouring millions into arts and cultural funds. And it needs to ensure that this kind of support is not directed only toward those at the top of the cultural food chain — the Republic of Doyles — but that even more crucially, support is there for those trying to break in at the bottom, whether it’s a poet trying to get their work published or a video game producer looking to target the South American market.

Renewal and pride

Let’s be perfectly honest: the renewed spirit and confidence of Newfoundland and Labrador—the winning back of our pride, as Danny Williams put it—has happened not because of oil and energy/resource development; it’s happened in spite of it. After all, you don’t see international conferences and tourism operators scrambling over each other to bring their members to the Alberta tar sands, or to the deserts of Kuwait. Orienting your economy toward resource extraction is a quick way to gut your land and destroy social cohesion.

It’s been, by contrast, the arts which have helped us keep things together. Our pride didn’t come from construction mega-projects that lay off scores of workers at the drop of a hat. It came from groups like Codco who, at the height of our economic woes and so-called inferiority complex, took to the Canadian airwaves in a fearlessly creative rebuttal to the stereotypes and messages we’d been internalizing. It came from writers like Ray Guy and Michael Crummey and Lisa Moore and Bernice Morgan and all those others who brought our story to bestseller lists of The Globe and Mail and the New York Times. It came from bands like Great Big Sea and Figgy Duff and more recently the likes of Hey Rosetta and Colleen Power and Amelia Curran and Ian Foster and The Once and Judith Morrissey and all those others. They travel the country crammed into old vans and decrepit buses and sleep on the bare floors and sofas of friends; yet they do a far better and more effective job representing our province to the world than the politicians who fly first class and sleep in five star hotels.

Because when somebody in Canada or the US or Germany is asked to name a famous Newfoundlander or Labradorian, who comes to mind? Ninety-five per cent of the names known outside our province are cultural and creative producers. And perhaps Danny Williams. But after all, Danny Williams’ success stemmed from the fact that he was a consummate actor himself. Like all successful actors, he worked hard, knew his audience, practised his lines thoroughly and chose his roles wisely. And once he’d picked a role, he threw himself into it with that fully committed energy that we all too rarely see outside of the stage.

So … ante up, b’ys

I went through the websites for the three PC provincial leadership candidates—all those fine ‘visions’ and ‘commitments’—and could not find the arts, cultural and creative industries mentioned anywhere. But at least Paul, Steve and John are thinking about policies. The Liberals don’t even have any listed on their website. This is the clearest evidence of the political immaturity of our political establishment: policies are not just some sort of platitudes for an election year. It is now, in the calm before the campaign storms, that parties ought to be bringing forth policies. And refining them. And receiving feedback. And doing more research. And refining them some more.

If our elected representatives put as much work into doing research and actively crafting innovative policies as they did bantering with journalists on Twitter or one-upping each other in Question Period, we’d be unbeatable. So let’s get to it: start writing and developing policies. And not just statements or reactions to events in the news: good, clearly articulated policies that have been thought through, researched, subjected to feedback and critique, and refined. Little wonder our political leaders always seem to be reacting to storms — they repeatedly fail to check the weather forecast and plot a course through calmer waters.

Prioritizing the arts, cultural and creative industries is one such sensible course. So let’s get to it, politicians: start talking to the arts and cultural producers and figuring out how we can build a future that’s suitable for the century to come.

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