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Posted: September 04, 2012

Building the creative economy from the ground up

How to construct a powerful win-win

Neil McKenzie

The importance of the creative economy in economic development is a hot topic these days in the governmental, educational, nonprofit and private sectors. The creative sector is usually defined as professions in science, engineering, education, design and the arts to name just a few. The general approach is that a robust creative sector will help accelerate job growth, foster entrepreneurship, make communities more vibrant and position us to compete in the world economy.

The top down approach

There are a lot of efforts being made to build the creative economy from the “top down” by a variety of educational, nonprofit and governmental agencies.  Today, many are jumping on the band wagon even as some cut back on these efforts as a result of limited budgets.  Examples of the top down approach include creative- and innovation-centered educational programs, arts districts and funding of creative placemaking efforts just to name a few.

A major challenge with this approach is to develop measures that prove that the money was well spent or in business terms “return on investment."  In an era of scarce resources, taxpayers and donors are demanding effective investments that lead to sustainable outcomes.  Another challenge major challenge is to insure that these efforts have a positive and long term effect on the people they were designed to help - namely the individual artists and creative enterprises as well as the communities where these efforts are targeted.  

The bottom up approach

It's just what it says - developing the creative economy by nurturing the individuals and enterprises that make up the creative economy.This could take the form of direct investments into the entrepreneurial sector, incubators, mentoring and education for those involved in the creative sector.  One of the advantages of this approach is that the funding and other efforts have a more direct route to those involved in the creative sector with fewer layers of middlemen.

One example of the bottoms up approach is the new Metro State Creates program at the Center for Innovation at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  Metro State Creates combines a business incubator for creative entrepreneurs with a showroom/gallery located in the new Student Success Building.  The idea behind the program is to give creative entrepreneurs the skills they need to succeed in the world of business.  The program hopes to attract creative individuals in art, architecture, writing, design, performance, apparel, video and other creative professions.

The Metro State Creates program is for creative entrepreneurs who are serious about building a successful business. It is open to any Coloradan in the creative sector with an existing business and a web presence.  Entrepreneurs who are interested may find out more at the CAFÉ ( website or by contacting the Center for Innovation.

The bottom line

To successfully cultivate our creative economy we need to utilize both the top down and the bottom up approaches.  We need to be careful that the top down approach is efficient, has measureable outcomes and delivers the intended results.

We also need to make sure that the creative individuals who make up the creative economy are provided an opportunity to succeed and navigate in the world of business. These individuals and entrepreneurs also have a responsibility to take their destiny in their own hands and not rely on success trickling down from above.  If we can put these two together, we should have a powerful win-win.

Neil McKenzie is an author, educator and consultant to artists and arts organizations in the areas of business and marketing planning.  His recently published book, The Artist’s Business and Marketing ToolBox, was written to take the mystery out of business for artists and other creative professionals. He has more than 30 years experience as a management consultant and corporate marketing executive working with hundreds of organizations including some of the world’s top brands. Neil is a visiting professor at the Center for Innovation at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he developed and teaches Artrepreneurship; and at University College at the University of Denver, where he teaches the graduate course, Marketing for the Arts.  He is a frequent guest lecturer to artists and organizations in the creative sector and writes about the creative economy including several articles for Americans for the Arts, a national arts organization.  Neil can be reached at 720-339-3160, or






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