City Creative Industry Strategies: Unique American Cases

Many cities around the world, large and small, target creative industries for economic development. Visual, sound, writing and expressive skills propel innovation and job growth in motion pictures and television, sound recording, broadcasting, publishing, performing and visual arts, and tourism, and employ high shares of artists in their workforce (Markusen, Wassall et al, 2008). These strategies target artists but also commercial companies, cultural nonprofits, government agencies, community groups, and consumers.

In this essay, we review three US cities’ outstanding efforts to design and implement creative industry strategies. Each is tailored to the distinctive strengths and challenges they possess.

  • Seattle, Washington: City of Music, a partnership to support musicians, music venues, a broad and diverse music industry, nonprofit music organizations, and researchers; initiated by a Mayor of Seattle and located in City government
  • San José, California’s ZERO1 Biennial and Garage, wedding art with technology and pairing tech companies with artists; led by an arts nonprofit with many local arts nonprofit partners and support from the City, corporations and funders
  • Providence, Rhode Island’s decades long innovative City support for creative workers and industries, such as tax-free arts districts, real estate assistance, and a new initiative that links growing design-based businesses with seed capital and mentorship

Seattle: City of Music

Targeting music as a genre, Seattle: City of Music attracts musicians and music lovers, enhances music sales and musicians’ incomes, subsidizes venues and organizations, and fosters networking, creativity, and new enterprises. Since its formation in 2002, it maintains a high visibility City web presence, showcases outdoor festivals and a broad range of music styles and venues, engages in business retention efforts, bolsters K-12 music education, and mounts musician homeownership and health care programs.

In 1995, Seattle musicians became active in mayoral campaigns, asking candidates publicly: “What will you do for music?” By 2002, they helped elect a pro-music Mayor, Greg Nickels, who commissioned economic impact studies (Beyers, et al, 2008) showing the full range of enterprises that link musicians with consumers and estimated that music supported 20,193 jobs in the Seattle region and generates $2.2 billion in sales, $840 million in earnings, and $148 million in tax revenue.

The Beyers study empowered a broad swath of players within Seattle’s music industry to see themselves as a coalition (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010: 40–41). In 2008, Mayor Nickels mounted Seattle’s Office of Film + Music, financed out of the City’s general fund. Nickels and his Director, James Keblas, worked to keep all sectors— commercial, nonprofit, government, community— engaged. Continued under a new Mayor in 2009, the City now hosts a Music Commission with 21 members from the music industry.

Seattle music effort serves three constituencies: musicians, music organizations, and music patrons. Aside from a modest City budget of less than $200,000, the private sector funds most of the initiative’s costs, with nonprofits contributing services. The website links musicians to health clinics and young musicians to college scholarships. A City of Music Career Day encourages 200 to 300 high school and college students to build a career locally. The City offers an admissions tax exemption for live music venues.

In 2012, the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce unveiled its own City of Music Initiative, committing resources to advocacy. The Chamber encourages companies to incorporate local music into their products and advertising. Sea-Tac Airport launched its “Experience the City of Music” with local music at gates and baggage carousels. The airport’s free Wi-Fi offers a local music web player, “to tap into all the glory of grunge and rock, sizzling urban and soul, favorite and fresh folk, and jammin’ jazz.” They plan a busker program throughout airport and on busses to downtown Seattle.

Seattle: City of Music has enhanced the city’s standing internationally. In the US, regarding concentrations of musicians and music-related businesses, it ranks fifth behind the Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco metros (Florida, 2012). High visibility for live music performances helps to expand participation, targeting local consumers’ discretionary income while sparking innovation (Markusen, Gadwa and Barbour, 2012).

San José’s ZERO1 Biennial and Garage

The City of San José’s ZERO1 Biennial, Garage, and fellowships are wedding technology with art to cultivate new commercial frontiers and remake the face of Silicon Valley as a place to live and work. ZERO1, a nonprofit, sees art as central to collaboration, experimentation, discovery, and invention—critical to understanding our contemporary world (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010: 52–3). It builds on the Valley’s prowess in technology while understanding that how artists approach creativity and visual, sound, and design content are central to the Valley’s economic future.

ZERO1 mounted its fourth Biennial in 2012, attracting 17,000 people. The festival is trans-disciplinary, encompassing visual and performing arts, theater, music, and public art installations. More than 100 artists, local and international, won the opportunity to display their works. More than 40 nonprofit arts organizations provided platforms, where artists led workshops that engage participants nonstop. ZERO1 brings its nonprofit partners’ networks, curatorial expertise, international recognition, and exposure to creative artists from elsewhere.

ZERO1’s arts and technology initiative dates from the mid-1990s, when a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Andy Cunningham, staged an Interactive Media Festival in Los Angeles, showcasing artists and projects that forecast the future. As a follow-on, she assembled a Board and established the non-profit ZERO1.

The Biennial is a partnership between ZERO1, 40 Silicon Valley arts organizations, regional foundations, and corporations. The City of San José, the downtown of Silicon Valley, provided crucial early support, funding ZERO1’s and 2008 festivals. Since then, ZERO1 relies on philanthropic and private sector support.

Figure 1. Green Prix Entry, Zero1, San José, California

ZERO1 is a 21st century model of how nonprofit arts organizations might function in a fast-changing world. The 2008 Biennial featured a Green Prix competition and parade that exhibited artists’ visions of eco-locomotion—people moving through urban space on everything from modified skateboards, bicycles, and solar cars, to self-guiding automobiles. Artists paraded their vehicles to a central place where people could examine the entries and talk with their creators.

In the fall of 2012, ZERO1 opened its Garage, a space where principles of artistic creativity are applied to real-world innovative challenges. The Garage offers regional companies like Google and Adobe the chance to work with an Artist Fellow from three to six months, tackling challenges such as “what will a free and open internet look like in ten years?” ZERO1 is not making artists into product developers, but allows them to share their radical interpretations, translating these into something useful for companies. The Garage hopes to thrive by providing value to fast-paced companies via artists’ exceptional creativity. But it’s also an arts nonprofit committed to celebrating San José and the Valley as not just geeky and techy, but artistically rich and diverse.

Providence: City Support for Creative Workers and Industries

Providence, the self-proclaimed “Creative Capital,” has supported a variety of creative industries for over 20 years. Arts-friendly mayors, savvy city staffers, civically minded developers, and artists have led the way (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010: 60–1). Innovative City support ranges from the country’s first tax-free arts district to providing cultural enterprises with real estate assistance and to a far-reaching cultural plan backed with robust public participation. Most recently, Providence launched a competitive grant program that provides seed capital to support design business’ growth.

In 1998, Providence became home to the first tax-free arts district in the US. Artists who live and work within the district face neither sales tax nor state income tax on art they created in the district. Gallery spaces located with cultural districts also benefit from sales tax exemptions on original one-of-a-kind artworks. Galleries take advantage of the tax incentives to a greater extent than artists, but City staffers report that the policy signaled to artists that the City valued them and helped entice artists to stay in Providence. Rhode Island extended the districts to nine communities, other states replicated their model, and in 2013 the Rhode Island legislature extended the tax policies to the entire state.

Figure 2. AS220 Labs, Providence, RI

The City of Providence also provided creative enterprises with support in property acquisition that ranged from technical assistance to property taxes stabilization plans to below-market loans and grants. In 1985, for example, the nonprofit art space AS220 ran out of a one-room loft, with a budget of $800. It now owns and operates three mixed-use buildings. Over 100,000 square feet provide affordable live/work studios, exhibition spaces, and facilities such as a print shop, dark room, media arts lab, and fabrication and electronic lab. With a $4 million annual budget, 70% of which is earned income, it supports 60 employees and manages seven for-profit corporations. An acquisition loan from the City of Providence and technical assistance on state and federal tax credits supported AS220’s dramatic growth.

Providence’s most recent creative industry initiative is the Providence Design Catalyst. Launched in October 2015, the competitive grant program connects small design businesses with up to $35,000 of seed capital, as well as mentorship and business training. A $500,000 federal grant funds this public-private partnership between the City and three private design and social enterprise focused entities. Initiators hope that it will help Providence leverage its existing design assets, such as being home to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. The initiative came about as a direct result of the priorities that the City’s 2009 cultural plan placed on supporting creative entrepreneurs (Dreeszen & Associates et al, 2009).


Each strategy plays to the distinctive strengths of its host region. Each emphasizes networking to foster and disseminate expertise and innovation. Each targets entrepreneurs, whether artists, small businesses, or large corporations, as key actors in the process. All are modestly scaled and financially affordable. Each shows how various actors play initial and ongoing leadership roles.

Ann Markusen

A leading expert in arts, culture and economic development. She is the director of the Arts Economy Initiative at the University of Minnesota, USA, and focuses her research and practice on artists and regional arts ecologies.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus

Principal at Metris Arts Consulting. She is a researcher, writer, speaker, and advocate for the intersection of arts and community development.

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