Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: The art of seducing creative talent

Goreti Cardoso / February 13, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: The art of seducing creative talent

Talent attraction has become a common objective of cities around the globe. The presence of artists, as well as arts and culture offerings in a region have the potential to support this goal. A vibrant place with cultural amenities, like museums, art galleries, orchestras, festivals and cultural fairs, can serve as a major drawing factor for highly-skilled workers and new businesses, as argued by scholars like Richard Florida. However, there is an ongoing debate about what types of investments in the arts will in fact contribute to attracting creative people to any given region. I have yet to find one simple formula so far.

On the other hand, after many years of working in the arts sector myself and exploring this dynamic at the University of Waterloo in the Local Economic Development graduate program, I’ve learned something about creative talent attraction: it’s a lot like seduction. No matter how amazing your own qualities are, if you don’t pay attention to the needs of the other your relationship will most likely fail.

I’ve seen a common emphasis on exploring the local features that attract creative workers to a place, rather than investigating the necessary conditions that should be improved in order to support artistic work. As such, in my research, I looked not only at what artists look for when they choose a place to live, but also what challenges these workers face while participating in their respective cultural industries. I interviewed 21 artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and artistic disciplines in Toronto, and I’ve focussed on immigrant artists over domestic. This approach was chosen to provide a deeper understanding of the synergy, needs, and dynamics of the local artistic sector more comprehensively while Toronto, the city with the largest number of artists in the country, also has more than twice the proportion of recent immigrants than the rest of the country.

Here is a bit of information gathered from my findings.

What seduces artists?

Interviews showed that even though some place characteristics have wide appeal to artistic talent, artists in different disciplines will value different qualities of a place. However, in general, immigrant artists are attracted to:

  • Cultural (ethnic) diversity,
  • Success within the local cultural industry, and
  • City-size (yes, it matters!).

There are many reasons for why these factors are important. The city’s cultural diversity appears to be crucial for immigrant artists in building a sense of belonging and identification in the new place of residence. In looking at success within the industry, many artists equate this with more possibilities for finding employment in the sector.  As for city size, most artists are making a living from multiple jobs or one full-time non-artistic job. As such, easy access to jobs of all kinds – often associated with large cities – represents the possibility of a steady income that will support their artistic practice. Also, artists practicing certain disciplines are attracted to features like agglomeration, artistic concentration, and the number of activities that demand artistic work.

What do artists need for this relationship to last?

In order to keep the artists already in your region, there are some steps communities can take to nurture the relationship and make it last:

  • Encourage networking, interaction, and recognition: These represent core and inter-related mechanisms that drive the artistic sector. Artists are attracted to and need to be able to access year-round arts scenes where those mechanisms can occur. Often, this happens while attending each other’s works, in nightlife venues, at festivals, and within other scenes and spaces, such as ethnic organizations.
  • Ensure affordable studios and rehearsal spaces: Many artists face income constraints, and it is important to note that this is usually an unpaid time of work in the performing arts discipline.
  • Access to venues and year-round performance opportunities: Artists should always be able to showcase their work, not only for income purposes, but also because exposure is a reputation-builder and helps validate their artistic work.

Are you ready for a relationship with an immigrant artist?

This is an extremely important question to ask in the context of any multicultural creative city. And it is certainly a favourite topic of mine.  Many challenges that the interviewees revealed were related to, or originating from, ethnicity, language barriers, or immigration status. For example, findings showed a need for a different approach to grant-writing support, due to English language limitations, or the interviewee’s unfamiliarity with the ‘unwritten codes’ of the local culture. Also, there is a general lack of awareness about the existent support services for artists in the city.

Programs must address the needs and particularities of not only the artistic world (e.g. lack of time due to second jobs, low-income levels), but also the challenges faced by immigrants (e.g. language barriers, cultural barriers, lack of familiarity with “unwritten codes”, isolation, etc.). A greater focus should be placed on designing programs and services that address their unique needs, and help break down barriers that form exclusionary networks.

Final Insight: Consider this when helping artists in your city.

Artists bring extensive economic, social, and cultural benefits to any community. But just like getting to know our ‘partner’ is fundamental to a long-lasting relationship, it is vital to get a more in-depth understanding of which specific features and infrastructures will attract artists, and retain these key players in economic growth.

To close, here are a few last takeaways from my research.

  • Most artists don’t know how to sell their work. They are artists (and love to be artists!), not salesmen.
  • Artists may not be willing to pay for certain types of programs offered in the city that were designed to support the artistic work (e.g. business-related workshops), due to income constraints.
  • Some artists may lack interest or ambition in growing their businesses. Those don’t see the arts as a means of making a living or a ‘real’ business.
  • Most artists hold multiple jobs besides their artistic work! As a result, they face a critical lack of time and energy, which challenges their capacity to attend workshops and programs.
  • The time left from their full-time job is often dedicated to creation, rather than (when they get to this stage!) selling their art.

Consider these when planning anything or designing services and programs for a community of artists.


About the author

Combining her extensive work experience in the artistic sector, and the knowledge acquired through the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development graduate program, Goreti Cardoso recently completed her MRP entitled ‘Attracting Creative Talent to Toronto: The Experiences of Immigrant Artists’ – supervised by Tara Vinodrai. The author explored what immigrant artists look for when they choose a place to live, and the barriers they face in the city.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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