Editorial: The case for the Creative Economy

In October, we celebrate the arts and the part that the Creative Economy plays in the Island’s greater economy. By any measure, the arts practiced here make a recognizable and significant contribution, in the dollars spent by the consumers of art products and then by the artists whose revenues in turn support other parts of the economy. In a broader sense, there is the appeal that artists and their work have for visitors, seasonal and occasional, an appeal that may be sometimes discounted but that enhances the attractions of the Vineyard itself to tourists and summer and year-round residents. Oh, and while tourism generally has some discomfiting byproducts for Islanders, the arts do not.

The Vineyard’s history records a longstanding regard for the arts and for artists, writers, designers, sculptors, craftsmen, artisans of all sorts. The Island has for decades attracted them and their followers. Sadly, as the tourist economy has grown, the share of it that has its roots in the arts has laid claim to a stable but modest share. More than promotion, important as it is, there is something substantial that can be done to grow the Creative Economy, by attracting and nurturing its practitioners.

An example, both of the possibilities and the difficulties, is the failed effort to develop what was called the Bradley Square mixed use project in Oak Bluffs. Begun as an affordable housing initiative, it was aimed at what had become, informally, the Arts District, along Dukes County Avenue. The project, more exalted in its conception than it was possible to fund and execute, collapsed in the crumbling national and local economy so fiercely damaged in the Great Recession. Among the headwinds Bradley Square faced was fierce opposition from some neighbors of the project. What was called the Arts District was not a district at all, not in the town’s zoning bylaw. It was a hopeful, ambitious, and successful grass-roots effort that had attracted artists, galleries, and ultimately patrons. The Arts District had everything going for it, except the legal blessing, encouragement, support, and protection of town zoning rules.

Just as zoning districts are designated and codified to protect residential development for residents, or districts for retail business, or for industrial activities, or for hospitals and associated health care activities, there may have been a formally recognized and carefully regulated Arts District in Oak Bluffs, but there was not. So, the Bradley Square project, with its historic preservation attributes, its affordable housing elements, and its artists’ studio apartments, designed to enhance what was an informal neighborhood of like minded artists and gallery owners, did not fit neatly into what was officially designated a district for light and common sorts of businesses and was in fact a neighborhood of mixed residential and business use. Some of the most powerful opposition to the project built on the size of the project, but also on its perceived consecration of the Arts District concept.

The artist neighbors who were delighted by the project fought strenuously. “Much negative rhetoric has been directed toward the Arts District from people who still do not understand the need for a safe, pleasant pedestrian neighborhood with good affordable housing and the restoration of an historic place,” one gallery owner wrote in a Letter to the Editor of The Times. “It was the artists who started the petition to get the stop sign at Dukes County and Vineyard Avenue and who wholeheartedly support the town’s request for sidewalks. After all, we are in a walk-to-town location. How do the dissenters not see the families walking from the harbor to Smoke & Bones at night, or people walking through the campground to Tony’s Market? Maybe it’s because they do not live or work here.

“The effort of our artist community is to improve the look and safety on Dukes County Avenue. We should not bury our head in the sand. Projects are going to come to this last strip of B1 zoned property not yet developed. Think of what could be here – there are no regulations. How about a large restaurant with take-out, or a car dump. It’s possible.”

On the ground, the unofficial Arts District was a mixed residential and business area, and a restaurant was indeed possible, but a development of the scale and nature of the Bradley Square project was not an easily sanctioned fit.

While it would certainly made a splendid contribution to the neighborhood and made the ephemeral nature of the Arts District concrete, the support needed for that to happen was missing. It might have succeeded had the community of artists and art businesses, with support from the business community and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce been able to persuade town planners and the voters to create an unusual reserve for the Creative Economy. This opportunity, overlooked in Oak Bluffs in 2008, remains, and not only in Oak Bluffs. Promotion of the Creative Economy’s contribution to the general economy is important, but these small and valuable contributors need more. They require nurturing and some protection in just the same way business and residential activities are protected. Planning boards will consider such protections, and voters will also, but what are needed are places for activities that may account for as much as 10 percent of the Island’s business activity today, but with support might grow to contribute much more. The case must be pressed with planners and voters.