Brennan Nardi’s Column: Creative Clash

Madison is a great place to live (if you have a good job and like your neighbors)
Brennan Nardi’s Column: Creative Clash

By: Brennan Nardi

This design-inspired magazine is a belated product of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Design MMOCA event put on earlier this year. Inspired by artwork from the permanent collection, area designers created installations that exhibited at the museum. Mad Mag wanted a piece of this cool, creative action, so our art director Tim Burton selected Sap by local artist and art professor T.L. Solien. Because of our deadlines Tim’s installation—also known as the cover of this issue—debuts a bit late. It’s not easy to balance the precise rules of cover design with such an open-ended assignment, but as usual Tim rose to the occasion. He challenged himself to innovate, to create something new but something that still says “Madison.”

You can see more design content throughout the issue, including the cover story featuring successful designers in our community, who are often dubbed members of “the creative class,” so-named by economist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class published in 2002. In the book, Madison was listed as the most creative small city in America due to high scores on the indicators of talent, technology and tolerance. Soon after, we ran a cover story, “Meet the Creative Class,” featuring area residents who fit the description, as well as an article examining Florida’s tolerance data, a.k.a. the “Gay Index,” titled “How Gay is Madison?”

The creative classer who wrote the latter piece for us was a guy by the name of Frank Bures, who just penned another article, this time rebuking Florida’s theory. “The Fall of the Creative Class” appears in a new magazine out of Minneapolis, where Bures and his family moved after several disappointing years in Madison. Bures rejects our city’s reputation as a bastion of creativity—the kind that bolsters the economy and quality of life. In a particularly scathing passage, he dubs it “a giant suburb with a university in the middle.” He also quotes geography professor and former Madisonian Jamie Peck, who has been an outspoken critic of the creative class theory: “What was driving Madison was public sector spending through the university, not the dynamic Florida was describing.”

If you care about this stuff like I do (check out Florida’s rebuttal to Bures on his blog at The Atlantic Cities), it’s been a fascinating diversion from the sweltering summer heat. While Bures’s bitter pill was hard for me to swallow, I get it. If you are young and untethered to anything other than an adventurous spirit, life in Madison can be dispiriting once the farmers’ market, the lakes and State Street excitement wear off. I waited tables and clerked at the car wash before landing a “real” job and building a life here. What I learned from my youthful spontaneity is that unless you are extraordinary, you have to actively pursue the good life, not passively expect it to find you.

Years before Florida’s book came out, Money magazine ranked us the best place to live in America based on job growth, home prices, schools and more. While it made for some fabulous city signage and we all felt better about winter, the reality is that wonky data and word of mouth aren’t reasons to relocate.

What these numbers didn’t show was a swiftly changing demographic that makes it harder to educate kids. Or a looming budget shortfall that can no longer sustain the university and state government as secure and plentiful employment bases. The farmers’ market and Overture Center are economic stimulators but food and the arts both need to be connected more broadly to the health and wealth of our region before they’ll have a larger impact on the economy. Unless you work in sectors like health care and law or you are a successful entrepreneur—or you work at Epic or Shopbop—Madison is not upwardly mobile. Like Bures, creative class workers can max out on their growth potential because the market is so small for writers, artists, techies and other knowledge workers. That’s changing, but not overnight.

You could argue the finer points of Richard Florida’s theories all day, but the fact is that Madison is a great place to live if you have a good job and you feel connected to people around you. Bures, who by the way lived in Verona, not Madison, has simply found that someplace else.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

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