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The creative discount

A party last night in the historic museum quarter of Vienna confirmed for me the universality of creative economy—and of its problems. The party was to celebrate the launch of the annual Departure Look Book, profiling recipients of creative industry export grants. Departure is the Viennese equivalent of NZTE and has an annual grants budget of €7 million for funding creative entrepreneurs. That’s just Vienna alone, a city of 1.8 million. I wonder what other treasures Austria is hiding!

It was a great party in a stunning old semi-circular building, with 300 plus very groovy Austrian creatives, spilling out onto a raised patio garden area. By the way, everyone smokes in Vienna, especially if you’re a groovy creative, which is not very groovy at all. Funny how now after a few years of clear air in New Zealand, you find cigarette smoke choke inducing.

Anyway, the book is impressively full of designers, musicians, architects and multi-media people who all look like Geoff Ross or Holly Smith. I asked Eric, my host, why despite receiving €7 million in grants these folk looked so poor and unhappy. “That’s because they are—well at least they’re poor,” he said. Turns out the export assistance is pretty much the biggest source of revenue some will receive this year. Many are struggling to find commercial models to match their passion for their craft.

“Many of my friends in the creative sector have trouble meeting the market—their pursuit is as much about meaning as it is about money,” he says.

This money/meaning dilemma is exacerbated when Vienna is so wealthy that creative types can move from grant to grant. “It’s very comfortable here,” a politician at the party last night told me.

It’s no way of course to generate new wealth, nor does it force creative entrepreneurs to be altogether that entrepreneurial.

The grant scheme is a good idea—it’s designed to feed the creative industries cluster, in which Vienna has a long history—Mozart, Hundetwassen, Klimpt and many more came from here and received massive state and patron support.

The problem lies not with the scheme. Similar assistance exists for ICT, where entrepreneurs use it to build fast growing tech companies. The problem is more to with the ambitions and behaviour of the  creative entrepreneurs themselves. Unlike their cousins in ICT, manufacturing or pharmaceutical, creative industries entrepreneurs cannot fully embrace the market model and are happy to trade sales for their own freedom of expression. On the commerce-art continuum, many are happy to bias themselves toward art.

One response (as tried in the UK) is for government and industry consultants to train, cajole and force creatives to be more commercial. That makes sense, when you think how many critically acclaimed design, architecture, film and fashion houses are also highly commercial. Gucci, Norman Foster, Peter Jackson, anyone?

Eric has a different response. “Forcing creatives to be more commercial is an accountant’s response to the problem. And it doesn’t work. A core value of being creative is being free to express—not just to serve shareholders.” Eric is exploring ways to change the conversation: changing the expectation of the investors that part of their return in the creative industries is the sheer enjoyment in doing creative stuff and working with creative people.

Call the ‘creative discount’ maybe?

I’m onto Frankfurt now to see the world’s largest book fair. I think this will be naked commercialism at work.