Milwaukee must grow its creative class

Historically, Wisconsin’s economic lifeblood was based on manufacturing, agriculture and financial services. Gritty Milwaukee became the “tool box of the world.”

While manufacturing remains a key cog in the region’s 21st century economy, a collaboration of local groups is embarking on a mission to develop other economic drivers of the region, including the water technology industry and most recently the creative industry.

The Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee, in partnership with the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s Quality of Life Committee, launched the Creativity Works project in January 2010. As part of the initiative, economic development consultants from Boston-based Mt. Auburn Associates quantified the economic impact of the creative industries in the Milwaukee 7 region.

The Creativity Works committee plans to use that information to develop and build upon a strategic campaign to nurture the creative community as a key economic driver for the region and for the state, said Christine Harris, executive director of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee.

“The first step for us was defining what the creative industry was,” Harris said. “We needed first to define the creative industries, then identify and quantify their existence so we can leverage that information to strategically grow those areas in the future.”

Creativity Works defined the creative industries as all organizations, individuals and companies whose products and services originate in artistic, cultural, creative and/or aesthetic content, Harris said. The creative industries are further broken down into segments and occupations.

“We knew before we even started the study that the creative community in this region consisted of nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies and individual talent,” said Jill Morin, co-executive officer of Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater Architects and co-chair of the Creativity Works project. “Our challenge is determining the potential relationship between those different groups and implementing a plan that can act as a catalyst so nonprofit creative workers can learn from for-profit creative workers and vice-versa.”

The study found 66,707 jobs exist in the creative industries throughout the M7 region. That accounts for 4 percent of all regional jobs, a percentage higher than the percentage of creative workers in the rest of the state (3.6 percent) and the rest of the country (3.7 percent).

Creative industries in southeastern Wisconsin provide more than $2 billion in annual wages, Harris said.

“The study quantified what most creative people already knew,” Harris said. “That there is a significant cluster of creative people in the southeastern Wisconsin region. This cluster of creative talent can be leveraged to put the region at a competitive advantage over other parts of the state and other parts of the country. That is the task we are faced with now.”

The study categorized the 66,000 jobs into two main groups: jobs in creative enterprises such as architecture firms or advertising agencies; and creative talent working in non-creative type industries.

“Furthermore, the study differentiated between non-creative workers like accountants or receptionists in creative enterprises and actual creative workers like graphic designers, actors, or architects,” Harris said.

There are 49,146 regional jobs provided by creative enterprises throughout the region. That is approximately the same number of jobs as the construction industry and the transportation and warehousing industry in the region, Harris said.

The creative enterprise segments were broken down into design, culture and heritage, media and film, performing arts and visual arts and crafts. The design segment accounted for 46 percent of the creative sector in the region.

“The study was really about identifying what makes our region distinctive, what is unique about our region and go through an asset-based planning process very similar to what the M7 Water Council did,” Morin said. “We were able to identify design as a significant area of potential future growth for the region.”

Design has become a big component of the region’s “maker” mentality, Morin said.

“Part of our strategic initiative will be to engage more creative talent in the industrial design process in order to spawn more innovation and help to grow the economy of the region,” Morin said.

Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee agreed.

“There are many educational centers of design and engineering in the region that translate into a lot of creative research and development,” Taylor said. “Now we need to mobilize the private sector that benefits from an innovative and creative workforce, and provide opportunity for those companies and educational institutions to come together in a way that can grow this sector from an economic standpoint and create more jobs and more business in the region.”

Changing the conversation

Mt. Auburn Associates plans to issue a full report of the southeastern Wisconsin creative class data on Wednesday, Jan. 19, at the Creativity Works strategic direction party at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.

The economic consulting firm has conducted similar economic studies of the creative industries in multiple regions, including Louisiana, New York, Colorado, Washington D.C. and Massachusetts.

Helena Fruscio serves as the director for Berkshire Creative, an organization similar to Creativity Works in Berkshire County, Mass. Creativity Works worked with Fruscio to help establish an original direction for the project in the M7 region.

“I don’t think there is any specific way a region should do this kind of study. It has to be tailor-fit to the community,” Fruscio said. “However, I cannot express how much having the report, with actual numbers of economic impact to the county, did to change the conversation here in Berkshire.”

Not unlike the Milwaukee-region, Berkshire experienced a gap between the business community and the perception that the creative industry was only made up of nonprofit organizations and starving artists, Fruscio said.

“The report helped solidify that the creative industry and the creative talent in the county was not defined as starving artists,” she said. “In fact, it helped establish the artists within our community as independent business people, and defined the creative industry as one of the driving job creating industries in the community. It’s more difficult to argue with actual numbers.”

Berkshire Creative began the process nearly three years ago and has since established a robust communication network that, according to Fruscio, “puts everyone on the same page.”

‘Bridging the disconnect’

“We’ve created a network that not only connects the creative industry with each other, but also opens the door for the business community to have conversations with members of the creative community to find ways to work together that are mutually beneficial for both parties,” Fruscio said.

Creativity Works has enlisted Milwaukee-based Spreenkler Creative to develop an online network for job postings, events, group affiliations and profiles of members in the creative community. The network can serve as the base of conversation for forming those relationships.

“On a very basic level, the site will act as an online inventory of artists, designers, developers, companies and nonprofit organizations within the creative industry,” said Steve Glynn, president of Spreenkler. “It will serve multiple purposes by allowing creative talent to log on and look for work, post their skills and find networking events to go to, but will also allow business owners to search for creative talent they need or post jobs for creative work they need completed. We’re hoping it’s the initial step to bridging the disconnect between the creative community and business and acts as the engine for additional commerce networking.”

The buzz surrounding the Creativity Works project has already started to open doors, Glynn said.

“The best part of what this project is doing for me is exactly why I started Spreenkler in the first place,” he said. “When I started the firm, my vision was to have creative talent, creative students working seamlessly with business and community organizations like the GMC. It’s happening. I look back to a year ago, before the project started, and I know it was a lot harder to get traction on these ideas. People are starting to get it.”

Spreenkler is one firm experiencing some early successes spawned from conversations and relationships in Creativity Works, Harris said.

Conversations about collaborations with the business community and nonprofit organizations have become easier since the project started, said Wade Hobgood, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts. The Milwaukee Ballet recently teamed up with the Peck School of the Arts and the Medical College of Wisconsin to announce the Harmony Initiative, which plans to establish a 75,000-square-foot location in downtown Milwaukee for the Ballet’s headquarters, but also performing space for the Peck School and a sports medicine clinic.

“Though, we started initial conversations with the Milwaukee Ballet preceding the start of the Creativity Works project, the discussion grew even more serious once the conversations about the study began happening,” Hobgood said. “The support we were getting for the Harmony Initiative from donors and corporations was remarkable. We are embarking on a project that I think can be truly transformational for this community and could jump-start a lot of other development.”


The Peck School of the Arts also is working on establishing a Design Research Institute that would allow creative students from educational institutions such as UWM, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and others to interact with other schools of study, organizations and companies on collaborative projects.

“These collaborations can be transformational and have a profound impact on the quality of end products,” Hobgood said. “It’s our goal to be able to work with companies like Spreenkler to jumpstart more industry, more creative activities and establish business incubators to develop and grow this region economically.”

The Harmony Initiative is a great example of collaborations that can be established to make the nonprofit creative community more self-sufficient, said Paul Mathews, president and chief executive officer of the Marcus Center for Performing Arts and co-chair of the Creativity Works project.

“One of the goals of this project, in addition to creating more jobs and growing the state of this economy, is also to address the financial sustainability of the arts and culture part of the industry,” Mathews said. “The Marcus Center and our (future development) plans for our parking structure is another example of an organization taking steps to become self-reliant.”

The Marcus Center plans to renovate and expand its existing parking structure to include some mixed use-development to generate more revenue and help it become more self-reliant in the future, Mathews said.

“Historically, the biggest economic driver for the region has been heavy manufacturing,” Morin said. “That is still true, but companies are starting to realize that success is driven by innovation and creativity.”

To find out more about Creativity Works! Or to register for the event at the Harley-Davidson Museum where the study results will be released, visit

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