Drinking in the culture

Observations on nightlife

As Wall Street continues to flounder, can garage bands and grubby dive bars save the New York economy? Elizabeth Currid, author of The Warhol Economy and a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, certainly seems to think so. And, as she argued to a small audience at the Institute for Public Policy Research on a grey Tuesday lunchtime in early March, the “cultural economy” could be just as important in London.

A research schedule of gallery openings, fashion shows, gigs and hipster after-parties (“It wasn’t the hardest work in the world,” she conceded) convinced Currid that in big cities, where the arts generate billions, urban policymakers need to recognise the role socialising plays in the creative sector. In the arts, Currid argues, it really is all about who you know. Keeping the artists drinking in the same bars is important. So the “cultural hubs” of New York and London should subsidise housing to prevent artists from being priced out of districts they made lively in the first place.

Interesting as it was, Currid’s brand of artistic protectionism – unsurprisingly – received a mixed response. Subsidising artists’ housing disenfranchised those whom the arty types had pushed out, IPPR’s Jonathan Clifton pointed out. The Art Fund’s Madeleine Burbidge remarked that focusing funding on urban areas might mean that we overlook the social benefits in favour of the economic dividends of the arts.

But even though Currid’s ideas caused disagreement, her analysis of how the cultural economy works seemed spot-on. The talk had barely ended when a representative from the policy organisation UK Music shot across the room to talk to a DJ there, while the woman sitting behind me introduced herself to her neighbour: “Aah, so you must know Erica . . .”

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power