Eighteen months ago I met Joel Farran, chair of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC/Chicago) board of directors, for the first time to discuss my interest in being Executive Director. Over lunch, we stumbled upon our mutual interest in impact investing and common questions about its application to the creative sector. It was Joel who turned me onto Laura Callanan, who presented at our annual luncheon this past March, speaking to Impact Investing in the Creative Economy.

The luncheon’s format was informed by a Planning Committee, whose stewardship I very much appreciated. Without the committee, the title for the luncheon might have been, “Without the arts, Chicago sucks.” But, that’s the point I wanted to make that day. Chicago needs both the arts and business to thrive, not just survive.

Our planning committee decided the luncheon would not promote or debate the value proposition of the arts. We wanted to talk about creativity: recognizing the major role the creative economy plays in sustaining Chicago as a great place to live and work.

My interest in impact investing in the creative economy was initially piqued in May 2015, after reading a piece by Tad Friend in the New Yorker titled, “Tomorrow’s Advance Man—Marc Andreessen’s plan to win the future.” Andreesen made his reputation with Netscape. Today his firm Andreessen Horowitz is one of the top venture capitalist firms in the United States.

Two things struck me as I read that New Yorker article.

#1. The “start-ups” Andreessen was investing in sounded a lot like the arts organizations I knew or had worked with:

  • Start-ups led by visionary founders;
  • Who were working their way up through a series of short term projects that created “career capital”;
  • Entrepreneurs with large amounts of general knowledge, built on a foundation of a specialized skill set (much like our dancers, ceramic artists, and composers, for example);
  • and like a start-up, realizing sooner rather than later, they required specific expertise to scale. (By the way, this is where A&BC/Chicago’s programs plug in.)

#2. I simply couldn’t believe that amount of money Andreesen spoke about relative to his investments in startups.

About two-thirds of the way through the article, the author mentioned a tweet Andreessen wrote in 2011 which flipped a switch in me:

“Posit a world in which all material needs are provided free, by robots and material synthesizers. Imagine six, or 10, billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be…”

Since reading that article, I’ve seen hundreds of examples of impact investing in other sectors, but not in the arts. I wonder why this might be. I posit: if we don’t maintain or make new investments in the creative sector, those 10 billion people will be standing in the street facing shuttered theatres and museums.

According to the Americans for the Arts Creative Industries Report, there are 674,000 businesses involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they employ 3.5 million people. This represents 4% percent of all U.S. businesses and 2% percent of all U.S. employees, demonstrating statistically that the arts are a formidable business presence.

A&BC is an affiliate of Americans for the Arts, and one of 8 Councils in the United States. I find it interesting that six of the 19 American cities being considered for Amazon’s second HQ have an arts & business council, including Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Miami.

Collectively, we know the issues our cities and society face are too complex to address in one way. But I firmly believe the creative sector can be a strong partner in developing sustainable development goals such as well-being, economic health, quality education, and sustainable cities and communities. I see this as a team effort, requiring the investment of businesses, investors, AND funders to drive what is already important to them, by expanding their portfolios to embrace programs and services that only the creative sector can deliver. I feel hope by examples emerging on the horizon with the Calvert Foundation’s investment in Artspace and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) recent underwriting of a bond to support a $3.2 million line of credit to renovate La MaMa theater.

Last September Joe Cahill quoted in Crain’s Chicago Business, “A Chicago Symphony Orchestra string quartet plays as a children’s choir serenades Boeing executives at a glittering Art Institute dinner staged by Mayor Richard M Daley and Gov. George Ryan.”

Cahill was quoting a paragraph which first appeared in April 2001, when Chicago was courting Boeing. Today it’s Amazon. I’m pretty sure Boeing and Amazon would never have considered Chicago without our vibrant arts & cultural scene. This matters to all of us who call Chicago home. I’ll say it again: Chicago needs both arts and business to thrive, not just survive.