Raleigh is home to many of the North Carolina’s brightest, most creative individuals. Economists, city leaders and even Census takers call these people the “creative class.” The buzzword encompasses everyone from starving artists and indie musicians to computer programmers at high tech companies – anyone who makes their living by thinking outside the box.
Discussed at length by University of Toronto professor Richard Florida in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida defined the creative class is the “fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend.”
According to Florida, these workers make up around 30 percent of the American workforce and have an average annual salary of around $50,000.
Raleigh competes with bigger cities when it comes to the size of its creative class. The Triangle made Florida’s initial list of top 10 most creative cities, along with places such as San Francisco and Boston.
According to the NC Employment Security Commission’s fourth quarter 2010 report, 8,413 “arts, entertainment, and recreation” jobs contributed more than $59 million in wages to Raleigh’s economy.
“There certainly is a creative class in the Triangle. It’s a growing part of the economy,” said Ken Atkins, executive director of Wake County Economic Development with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. “The reason for that is the three tier-one universities and the Research Triangle Park, which has drawn a lot of bright, creative folks. You can be just as cool here as you can in the bigger cities.”
Events like this weekend’s SparkCon make it clear that Raleigh’s creative class isn’t just a subtle influence, they’re a driving force. SparkCon is a four-day event started in 2006 by Designbox and Ali and Beth Khalifa.
As Visual Art Exchange Executive Director Sarah Powers put it, SparkCon “is an interdisciplinary art and design festival that showcases the creative community.”
Powers said the festival shows how everyone, not just the creative class, is bettered by artistic exchange.
“It gets talent exposed to new audiences,” Powers said. “Second, audiences get to see tons of new art and new art forms. Also, a huge chunk of it is leadership; that really helps our volunteers.”
Though the creative class can contribute economically on its own, one of its greatest strengths, according to Florida and others, is in its ability to attract other opportunities.
“What contributes culturally also contributes economically,” said Derrick Minor, Downtown Raleigh Alliance director of downtown development. “It’s an additional ecosystem that attracts others to come here. [They] drive people to downtown and people, in turn, pour money back into the economy. It’s like a magnet.”
Marvin Malecha, dean of N.C. State University’s College of Design, has taught some of the people who make up that ecosystem.
“The most entrepreneurial spirit is that of the artist. They’re the least likely to get help and the most likely to say, ‘let’s move on’ when something isn’t working,” Malecha said. “Artists are by nature risk takers and innovators. They’re always investigating and questioning, because that’s how they get better.”
While visual artists and musicians embody this ethic, entrepreneurs like Victor_Lytvinenko, co-owner of Raleigh Denim, live by it, too.
“The question you ask when you’re trying to solve an artistic problem is the same question you ask when trying to answer questions about business,” said Lytvinenko, who started out making jeans with his wife, Sarah, at home. “How to attack a problem of design is similar to how to attack a problem of business— it’s something about problem solving; finding the right question to ask.”
What the creative class contributes cannot always be answered numerically, but anecdotes abound. The Raleigh Chamber’s Atkins said he believes the impact they have on Raleigh’s economy is undoubtedly much more significant than numbers indicate.
Creativity “is being able to not only have unique output, but also being able to inspire others with your work,” said Joe Hall, guitarist and vocalist for indie band Hammer No More the Fingers. “Inspire them to work on something big— to give new life or new energy.”
Like the state motto written above his workshop floor, “To be, rather than to seem,” Lytvinenko sees the creative class for what they bring to the community itself, not so much its economy. “I hope our contribution is inspiration, to show that anything is possible. We’re still here. Whatever it is you want to work on, it’s possible,” he said.