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Investing in Creativity

By Jamie McCrary

The Creative and Cultural Industries and the Future of Latin America’s Economy symposium

AU professor Ximena Varela believes investing in arts and culture will strengthen the future of Latin America’s economy. “Creative life is a really integral part of many Latin Americans’ lives,” says Varela. “In many different places in Latin America, you have arts and culture initiatives that generate jobs and job skills training. Focusing on ways people can make a living from the creative industries there makes a lot of sense.” 

This topic, among others, was discussed at the Creative and Cultural Industries and the Future of Latin America’s Economy symposium, held at AU on November 25. Formed in collaboration between AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and the Inter-American Development Bank, the symposium brought together leading arts professionals to discuss the importance of Latin America’s creative industries to the region’s economy. Panelists included researchers and practitioners from both the US and Latin America, including Sunil Iyengar from the National Endowment for the Arts, Anahí Moyano Larrea from the Ministry of Culture of Costa Rica, and Arlene Dávila from New York University. 

“This is the first time an international lending bank in Washington other than the World Bank is saying culture matters,” Varela says. “The fact that the Inter-American Development Bank sponsored a public event to talk about the importance of arts and culture is a big deal.” 

Organized as a roundtable event divided into two panels, participants examined what current data can tell us about the importance of Latin America’s cultural industries and how this data is connected to broader issues within the region’s economy. “Metrics and measurements were an important topic on the panels,” says Varela. “This is actually one of the biggest contributions U.S. cultural policy professionals have made to the field. Rather than using purely quantitative data to advocate for the arts, they have established more nuanced and qualitative ways of making their case.” 

While Varela assisted in planning the symposium topics, her main contribution was her research. A professor in the arts management program at AU, much of Varela’s research focuses on international cultural policy and its connection to arts and culture. “The research I do fits really well with the symposium,” says Varela. “For instance, I just finished an article on cultural diplomacy in Brazil. This ties into the symposium because it’s about how Brazil is using arts and culture in a way that’s non-traditional for cultural diplomacy, which impacts the country’s economy.” 

Varela believes we can learn a lot from Latin America’s approach to arts and culture. “In the US, when we say support for the arts, we’re basically talking about money. In Latin America, support for the arts means a community standing behind a theatre and not letting it close because it matters,” says Varela. “I think Latin America’s creative industries can teach us a lot about what connection and contribution can mean.” 

One reason for Latin America’s strong community support for the arts is the relationship cultural institutions maintain with their local communities. Rather than remaining separate, segregated institutions in society, many Latin American arts organizations actively incorporate and contribute to their surrounding communities. “One of my all-time favorite projects is the construction of the Museum of Popular Culture in Costa Rica,” says Varela. “The architects who designed the building worked with local traditional builders, which created jobs and gave value to the skills the builders have. This project not only preserved objects that were important to the community, but really incorporated and contributed to the community by providing a livelihood for people.” 

Moving forward, Varela believes the next step in promoting Latin America’s creative economy is creating additional funding opportunities. “I think it’s really important to find a way to create sustained financial support for people who want to embark on creative economy initiatives,” says Varela. “It would make a tremendous contribution to the creative economy there if people could take things beyond the start-up phase and really launch them as enterprises.” 

Though she realizes the symposium is one of many steps needed to strengthen the future of Latin America’s creative economy, Varela hopes that the meeting helped shift people’s perspectives. “I hope that when people are talking about what the creative industries can contribute, the Inter-American Development Bank and other agencies will understand that investing in arts and culture is not investing in extra, non-essential things,” Varela says. “My goal is really to be a part of causing that shift.”