Cheerleader has to be a politician’s toughest role, and when you’re boosting local music, that means second-lining in a suit, often in contexts not conducive to second-lining. Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu does it, though, and not in an apologetic “I wish I didn’t have to do this” way.
After Hurricane Katrina, Landrieu was one of the first people to step forward with a vision for bringing back Louisiana’s culture creators, and that plan dovetailed with initiatives he had already started to make Louisiana’s culture big business. The incentives and investment in a Louisiana film industry provide the philosophical model and justification for trying to make Louisiana’s native cultural products—particularly music—an economic engine. It’s all a part of his larger effort to revitalize Louisiana’s cultural economy and to make it work for the state.
“There is always this natural conflict between art and commerce,” Landrieu says. “When does something becomes so commercial that it’s not art anymore? You have this argument that goes on amongst the disciplines, but obviously, somebody found a way to make a living out of culture.”
What did you think when Sammy Kershaw announced that he wanted to run for Lieutenant Governor, and that he intended to focus on the entertainment industry? That had to sound pretty familiar.
Well, a lot of these people, particularly those living out of town in Tennessee might not know what we’re doing here. For the first three and a half years, one of our primary focuses was building what I call the back of the house side of the cultural economy. It stems from a philosophy: If you find creative, smart people, whether in the bio-tech sector or in sciences or in other areas, and you help them create things and you give them business acumen and incentives to do that, they will grow something new and creative. It was first floated by Richard Florida [who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class], but when he was talking about the creative class, he was really talking about the general idea of creating smart people. If you get smart people to come here, they will create something new.
The idea is that Silicon Valley wasn’t brought there; it grew there. My responsibilities were more narrow than that. It was really about the arts, music, and history, and if you took that principal and applied it to them. I started talking about something that I coined, “the cultural economy.” The idea has always been, how do you treat it like a business?
The idea for me in Louisiana is to figure out how many jobs the cultural economy was responsible for. What was the economic impact? Because if you can define those two things, then you can go to the legislature and argue for a change in policy. You can argue for a change in laws, you can argue for a change in tax policy, and my idea was to create the broad cultural umbrella just like you would treat the oil and gas industry in terms of incentives.
The best example of good tax policy that creates new business is the film tax incentive. The idea is that if you make it cost effective to do business here, people will do business. People always ask why did Nashville become Nashville? Why is Austin doing what Austin’s doing? My opinion is because they took a business approach to it, and in Louisiana, we’ve really never done that. I really wanted to start the discussion about how we make that happen.
Tax incentives seem to be the number one carrot we’re offering. Is that the best policy?
We’re doing a lot of things at once. The one thing that we’re doing on the grant side is trying to find a way, especially after the storm, to get emergency grants to musicians. We created the Cultural Economy Foundation, and we raised a million dollars which we distributed, within a very brief amount of time, to 650 artists to help refurbish what their needs were in terms of materials and instruments and things like that. The other thing we continue to try to do is advocate for more funding for the decentralized arts program, which we have gotten. We also have advocated for more tourism-related marketing dollars, which bring the people in here who will actually buy the things that we create.
On the back of the house side, we have not only direct appropriations, but tax incentive legislation, and we’re helping change core curriculum in schools. We’re partnered with the Kennedy Center to change the curriculum in every school in Louisiana to teach art, music, and the visual arts. That’s a whole soup-to-nuts, comprehensive approach, from the front end to the back end of how you really stand up the cultural economy.
The most important thing we’ve succeeded in really well is getting people focused on how important this is to the overall economy of Louisiana. We’ve identified that it represents 144,000 jobs and a $10 billion economic impact. When you can go to the legislature and talk that language, you have a much better chance of them paying attention to you, as opposed to asking them for a little grant for an arts program that might be nice for us to enjoy one Friday afternoon.
As someone who edits an arts magazine, the idea that you have to find a business rationale to get people to take art seriously is really discouraging.
That highlights this age-old debate that you have, that I’ve always told my friends in the arts community that they’re terribly naïve about. It would be wonderful if we had risen to a level of sophistication where we spent a huge amount of money on art before we spent it on police and fire and economic development, etc. etc. I don’t know any civilization in the world that has done that; European countries have done it more than us. And there is always this constant fight that is going on saying just because it helps us feel better about ourselves, we should do it.
The reality is that tax policy and budget policy are made by legislators and elected people who are responding to their constituents’ requests that are generally giving them something like a school or a road, or creating tax policy that has a return on an investment. If you can’t talk that kind of language, then you can’t complain about not being part of the mix.
I have a degree in theatre. I grew up in the arts community. I’m intimately aware of all these discussions about how you should love art for art’s sake, and I do and you should. But if you want money out of the general fund, you better go and give them a rationale why it’s going to benefit the community at large and why it’s good for us. Tell me how it’s going to be self-sustaining. Tell me what the return on the investments is going to be, and tell me what the business side is.
So much art and music have been a response to authority, particularly here in New Orleans. How do you as part of the government enter into a discussion of art and culture that has historically been defined against power?
Your assertion is not inaccurate; it’s just not complete. Sometimes music is just a celebration of beauty, it’s a celebration of truth, and it’s an insight. Sometimes it’s a rebellion. It’s all those things, I’m sure. What music and art does is speak to the truth of what happens to be occurring at the time. That has more to do with the substance of the music than whether or not it can be produced or not.
Basically, you have a product that you are trying to sell. The product has to be good and you have to have a consumer that has to buy it. If you want to get paid for what you do, then you have to be in the business of putting all those things together. I’m not trying to advocate for the commercialization of the artistic substance of a painting or a piece of music. All I’m saying there should be greater recognition from musicians and people who want to sell a product that people who have been successful throughout the world in selling products and treating it like a business and not just like an art have found the right combination between the two.
I’m trying to see what I can do to help to focus more attention on the business side of it as it as it relates to tax policy and grants, and also to trying to get artists themselves to think from the private sector side like a real business person, which requires showing up on time. It requires playing well, and it requires playing as long as they want you to and doing what you are required to do because you are a small business owner.
The artist Thomas Mann talks about how many artists take up art to avoid doing what business requires you do, when in fact artists need to do business better than business people because no one knows that they need an artist’s art.
I agree, but let me say it this way. If you become an artist because you don’t want to be involved in the mainstream community, and you don’t want to be a business person, that’s fine. But don’t complain when nobody buys your product and no one knows who you are. If, on the other hand, you’re a businessperson and your product is art and music and you want to sell it, then actively create the environment that you need in order to sell what it is that you have. That’s what everybody else in the world in business does.
There are some wonderfully lucky people in the world who for a whole bunch of different reasons have found the way to do both. Wynton Marsalis is a perfect example. Wynton Marsalis has made a wonderful living off what it is that he does. He has also helped the city of New York build huge capital projects like Jazz at Lincoln Center, which employs a lot of people. He is also very rich and authentic in terms of his interpretation of the art that he plays. Now the question is, how many of those can you have in the world?
I think it’s fair to say that Chicago, New York, Nashville, and Austin are able to provide employment opportunities for more artists than New Orleans can. I think people can argue that New Orleans has a very rich and deep bench of artists who are really good at what they do. If we were more disciplined and more focused and we treated ourselves more like a business without giving up in our sense of authenticity and creativity, a lot of people could eat more down here and have more jobs.
My impression is that a lot of people aren’t as sure as they think they are that they’re willing to pay the price to be successful.
I am a perfect example of that. My dream when I was younger was to be a professional actor. I wanted to perform on Broadway. I went to theater school, and I graduated from the Hartke Theatre Conservatory I went to New York, and I auditioned there. I was an active member of Actors’ Equity, and I really wanted to pursue that career. In my travails, I saw that a lot of my friends were willing to wait tables and make a substandard living in New York, living in an apartment that cost a fortune, go to 50 things a day, and after a while, I decided I didn’t want to pay that price. I felt there was something else that would be more fulfilling for me, and I wasn’t willing to stay and do what it took to get the job done.
Now in politics, I was willing to do that. I was willing to knock on doors every day, I was willing to campaign, and I was willing to do what was required. I think I have achieved some success in this particular business. What you can’t do is not do the hard work and then complain that it’s not happening for you.
How does the emphasis on the back of the house side of the cultural economy reach the makers of the cultural product?
The tax incentive programs affect artists directly; they are the ones who are going to receive the tax incentives. So if you’re a food distribution center like (Chef) John Folse, this tax incentive policy will make it easier for you and cheaper for you to do business here than in someplace else. John Folse would use something like this to build a distribution plan and hire 300 people. The same thing is true about visual artists who are going to be able to get tax breaks when they sell their art. It affects them personally and individually and directly.
The other thing that it is going to do is if you create infrastructure, like help studios stand up, it affects artists because they have a new place to go to record. When that starts happening, all the ancillary industries that surround us will grow. For example, there are going to have to be people who market these things, so you find somebody who is a marketing agent. Lawyers need to be around to make sure the copyright laws, distribution laws, publishing laws, and the writing laws are right. That is how the industry begins to grow and you eventually become a place like Nashville or Austin.
It seems ironic that while you’re making this effort, city zoning laws have made it harder to open up legal live music venues here.
It has always been interesting in the city about where they’ve allowed live music and where they haven’t. Some of this has nothing to do with whether people are pro-music. It has to do with someone who lives next door to a building that has music in it can peacefully live. A lot of these have to do with local zoning fights that City Council gets into. A real doozy, as I remember, was Audubon Tavern II on Magazine Street. The neighbors said this is great, but they are playing music till four o’clock in the morning, so is that really a good place to have a lot of loud stuff going on in a residential neighborhood? That has less to do with music than it does with neighbors being able getting along with each other, but it nevertheless has the same effect. Another one was Rosie’s on Valence and the other one was Benny’s right down the street on Valence. So New Orleans has had this way of having these music clubs in neighborhoods, and it’s all been a difficult thing that city council members have to deal with. Hopefully in the master-zoning plan that the city has been working on forever, they’ll be thinking through these kinds of things.
Now when you get down to areas like the French Quarter and Rampart Street, the city really, if they want to be the culture capital of the world, has to really think through from a zoning perspective where they want to encourage live music and where they want to discourage it. I don’t know if the city has gotten to that point of having that discussion, but it absolutely needs to have it. I would encourage them to take a very special look at this particular issue and engage the people in New Orleans and say, “Our objective is to become a place where live music is welcome and open. How do we do that? And how can the residents and business owners peacefully co-exist with this piece of our economy that we are trying to grow?”
One thing I find interesting about your strategy is that it takes what art is out of the political equation.
You can apply the same principal to anything. Art and the business of art and music and historic preservation are no different than the business of the port, or no different than the business of natural gas, or no different than the business of oil or tourism. We’ve turned these things into huge industries. Why? We said we wanted to, we said we could, we laid out what the steps are that have to be taken to get that done. We changed government policy to incent the private sector to do it, and then we set about actually getting it done.
It’s encouraging to hear that there’s an initiative to return music education to the schools. Jazz particularly is a music that needs a more educated audience to fully appreciate it, and its endurance is dependent on an educated audience.
If you don’t teach it, you can’t grow it.
All this stuff is built on a simple idea. In Louisiana, we have failed to add value to our raw material, to our raw talent, and to our intellectual capital. We take all the great stuff we have and ship it somewhere else, and someone who is smarter than us evidently takes our raw stuff and makes something out of it and makes it much more valuable. We can do the same thing here, and I’m trying to apply that to art, music, culture, and history.
For example—intellectual capital. We have two things—we have really good universities here, and the highest morbidity rate for cancer in the country. If we have smart universities that are in medicine and we have a morbidity rate, why don’t we try to find the cure for cancer here? If we find that, instead of then sending that idea to a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey to make the kinds of chemotherapy or medicines we need to treat that, why don’t we manufacture that here? Then, why don’t we sell that to not only help ourselves, but why don’t we sell that all over the country? The same thing is true with our musical talent and our raw material. Instead of sending Wynton Marsalis to Lincoln Center in New York on Columbus Circle, Wynton Marsalis would be here, that building would be here, and people would be coming here rather than there.
Don’t we face an obstacle in the size of our population? Isn’t there more likely to be enough people to support the arts in larger cities?
New Orleans wasn’t always this small. In 1960, New Orleans had 600,000 people. So the question is, why is Atlanta as big as it is right now? Why is Houston as big as it is, and New York and Chicago, and why isn’t New Orleans that big? It might be because we didn’t understand this. It might be because it stopped us from creating the kind of environment that people moved into rather than away from.
People like going to New York because people like being in New York. New York has great things. They have Broadway shows, they have the ballet, they have the opera, so if you have a business there and all the folks have wonderful things that they enjoy, why wouldn’t you want to put a business there? One thing follows the next. That’s the whole piece of it. That’s why I keep telling people, the cultural economy in and of itself is important, but it is a necessary component to build an economic engine that will bring people in and create an authentic place where people want to live. It’s critical to the future of the city for us to maintain that authenticity so that people will move back here rather than to move away.
New Orleans didn’t start dying after Katrina and Rita. New Orleans has been dying for the past 60 years. If you want it to stop dying, you have to reverse the trends and do something different. Some people like it, though. Some artists and some other people like New Orleans being small and insular and out of the way because it is low maintenance and low stress. That is all fine and dandy, but you can’t complain about it not being a big metropolis with high value and good jobs. You can’t have one without the other.