Todd Hirsch: The Economics of Public Art

Written by Jacqueline Peterson

You know Stampede’s coming in Calgary when you start to see the familiar cartoon bulls, cowboys and “Yee-Haw!”s painted on windows across the city’s downtown. Last summer, an interview between Annalise Klingbeil and ATB Financial Chief Economist Todd Hirsch on this uniquely-Calgary tradition piqued our interest.  Why can’t Stampede window art in Calgary feature original, sophisticated, and diverse artistic creations that could serve as a unique downtown attraction, for both tourists and locals alike? 

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We caught up with Todd Hirsch to discuss this idea further and discuss the economics of public art more broadly. While we’re destined to have the cartoon horses for the foreseeable future, there is a great opportunity for collaboration between downtown business groups and local artistic communities to create street art with a distinct Calgary style.

Public art plays an important role in society – and it’s not just aesthetic. In particular, we asked Hirsch to give us his take on the “economics of public art” and how public art figures into urban economies. Hirsch lays out three core reasons why arts and culture should be a priority in any local economic development strategy:

1. Job Creator: While not the strongest argument for the economics of public art, it is the most obvious and quantifiable.  More arts and culture means more jobs in arts and culture. The “multiplier effect” exists: people that work in the arts and culture sector make money and spend money in the local economy.

2. Talent Attraction & Retention: Arts and culture, according to Hirsch, “gives the fabric of a city its life”. Art (including architecture) is important to attract both workers as well as companies that want to set up shop in locations to which workers would want to move.  Perhaps most importantly, we need to build cities wherein people want to stay for reasons beyond their job. As Hirsch notes: “We should be building cities it would break your heart to leave.” Arts and culture, he says, is the glue that keeps this urban fibre together.

3. Promote Creative Thinking: Local arts and culture provide all of us the ability to be more creative thinkers – whatever our job may be. Hirsch speaks of this in his book The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.  Creative thinking is important in any economy, and exposure to new activities and ideas stimulates our brains to think creatively: “If we value creativity, having arts and culture available to us is an important component of it.” While perhaps the most “esoteric” economic rationale for public art, this is arguably one of the most important.

Finally, Hirsch argues that for public art to be effective, we need to be able to engage with it.  While perhaps stating the obvious, public art needs to be accessible to the public. Famous examples of public art such as the Bean in Chicago, or even the Peace Bridge or Wonderland sculpture here in Calgary, are popular because people can go up to them, examine them, and interact with them. Hirsch also recommends developing an online tool or app that can map out the public art in a city and give the public insight into the artists’ inspirations and objectives.  This could also be applied to a downtown window art (street art) initiative.

Most people want to like public art. Giving them more opportunities to see the art, learn about it, and engage with it certainly can’t hurt. For ten days a year, the Stampede brings people together in a unique celebration of Calgary’s history, community, and spirit. Public art in Calgary should expand and build on these traditions – elevating the Stampede window art scene is an innovative step in the right direction.

Jacqueline Peterson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

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