Julie Bonin 2017-01-24 03:58:35
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF HOUSTON’S CREATIVE SECTOR IS IMPRESSIVE . . . AND GROWING Energy. Aerospace. Behemoth ships arriving at the Port of Houston carrying goods from around the world, and manufacturing plants with miles of warehouse space. A medical center renowned for its innovation and size. These are some of the things people are used to thinking about when it comes to the Houston region, but while those factors do not add up to an unimpressive or inaccurate portrait of the place, they do result in an incomplete portrait, lacking in the color, texture, and richness that the city also offers. Thank you, creative sector, for thriving and growing alongside industry and entrepreneurship. Art, design, technology, gaming, storytelling, and film are among the vibrant, imaginative practices that energize, transform, and embolden innovation in any sphere, and thriving cultural districts in Houston have long made living here a pleasure. What is changing, according to Jonathon Glus, CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA), the nonprofit group that serves as a key part of the city’s cultural affairs infrastructure, is the increasing understanding of the impressive economic impact that the creative sector has here, as well as the significant opportunities for growth. A study commissioned by the HAA and the University of Houston and published in 2012 found that the creative sector in Houston had an economic impact of $9.1 billion, with more than 146,000 individuals employed in primary and support roles across the 10-county region. What’s more, the study also found that Houston’s creative commerce segment was the fastest growing of the six major metropolitan markets studied, and its creative talent was better compensated than counterparts in the other cities (Dallas, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles). “The identity of the city has been growing and changing,” Glus said. “At one time, it was known as one big energy city and that was about it. Now the business world is starting to understand that this is a viable creative industry city that is competing not just nationally but internationally.” Unlike other cities that out of necessity have had to reinvent their economies, aggressively seeking out creative businesses willing to relocate, Houston has had the relative luxury of having a creative sector that has grown organically. But with focused leadership and incremental investment, Glus said, the opportunities for continued growth are no less than “extraordinary.” “There’s a shift that economic development leaders have had to make, knowing that arts and culture isn’t just for entertainment or leisure. That it is in fact vital business. “There is a huge market opportunity for businesses to move here and for the professional to move here. We are a city that traditionally recruits big companies and that has proven to be successful, but the recruitment has not traditionally included creative businesses,” he added. Glus’s observations are echoed by Houston Film Commission Executive Director Rick Ferguson, who also attested to the transformation in the arts community in recent years. “What I know about the creative community is that it is expanding every single year in all aspects of the arts. And with the long-standing, thriving groups that have been part of this community for a long time, there is more of a blending, cohesive effort than these organizations have had in the past, which is a huge step forward.” Many of the characteristics of the region that combine to boost business of all kinds, including low cost of living and transportation infrastructure, are in play when it comes to the creative sector, Glus said. “Our location between the two coasts, the huge expansion of airports and direct flights that has taken place in the 10 years since I’ve been here, have been so important,” he said. “We are an economic gateway to Central and South America and certainly Mexico, yet it’s also really easy to get to China, to Dubai.” A powerful higher education system that includes Rice University and the University of Houston, as well as extensive community college systems, helps feed a consistent need for emerging talent in areas ranging from technology to artsdriven professions. But institutions of higher learning also sustain creative activity at the highest levels, through faculty who keep a firm footing in the world outside academia. “We have a lot of faculty to draw from who work in creative businesses,” Glus said. “It’s very easy to hire choreographers, to pull together a band.” Yet somehow, the depth and breadth of the talent pool still manages to take many by surprise. Richard Buday is the principal of Archimage, a Houston digital design studio/architecture firm. For many years, the firm focused on game development aimed at reducing childhood obesity for the Baylor College of Medicine, as well as digital design collaborations with Disney’s Buena Vista subsidiary. The counterintuitive swerve that linked building design with game development hints at some of the unorthodox ways Houston’s creative sector has morphed and grown, and it also provides a clue as to how creative talent can be hidden in plain sight within the vast expanses of Houston’s business world. Buday, who has returned to his primary focus on building design, recalled his initial thought process when first considering how to staff positions ranging from storytelling to audio technology to voice-over work. “At first we thought that we had to seek out talent from the other coasts, but while Houston certainly is not a market like New York City or Los Angeles, we found that all of the talent could be found locally,” he said. “We hold our own. Between the performing arts community and the universities, Houston has a very rich basis for production (of creative sector enterprises). And I think that comes as a surprise to a lot of folks.” Houston’s strength of diversity, as always, has affected creative sector positions of all kinds. Houston’s film community, which encompasses everything from narrative and documentary films to television commercials and corporate training films, has sizable professional subsets. The greatest growth, according to the HAA/UH study, has come from locally produced, lowbudget films created by Indian, Latino, African American, and women filmmakers. The study cited the number of Houston musicians and singers as second only to photographers among creative occupations in the region. The city is home to the oldest continuously operating sound studio in Texas, SugarHill Recording Studios, which is renowned for its work with contemporary Grammy-winning stars such as Beyoncé, as well as for music legends from past decades. The city has also cultivated hugely influential hip-hop and jazz artists. Further indication of Houston’s creative imprint can be found in traditional places like its well-established and wellrespected museum district, but also through the strength of groups like AIGA, a professional organization for design with one of the largest, most active chapters located here. Game development for training and education is a strength, as are “only in Houston” alliances such as a relatively new nonprofit, It’s Made in Houston, which seeks to bring artists together with the city’s massive manufacturing base for collaborative projects. For all these existing assets, gaps remain that represent opportunities for savvy business investors. The needs are both very broad—providing more of the billions in creative goods and services currently being imported that could be produced in Houston (according to the study)—and highly specific. Ferguson has been waiting for someone to step up to the need for a “big enough” soundstage, a missing link that has prevented the city from vying for some television and film projects. With 20,000 feet of unobstructed space and the requisite equipment, of course, doors could open, he said. “It’s a substantial investment, but not an astronomical investment,” Ferguson noted.
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