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How Arts and Culture Could Shape Louisville's Tech Future

Investing in art and creativity could be the key to Louisville’s tech dreams, experts say.

One of Mayor Greg Fischer’s biggest priorities is making Louisville into a city that can thrive in the 21st century’s knowledge-based economy.

Besides efforts to build new infrastructure such as Google Fiber, Fischer has also invested in training residents for jobs in computer coding — namely the Code Louisville program — and other tech jobs. Code Louisville even garnered praise from President Barack Obama last year.

Despite the effort, the Louisville Metro area has one of the smallest shares of what researchers call the “creative class,” which includes tech workers, artists, designers, entertainers and law and health professionals, among others.

According to the research from the Martin Prosperity Institute, Louisville is among the bottom 10 metro areas for its share of creative occupations.

Planning experts have found a thriving arts scene could change that.

The convergence of art, design and business — particularly the tech industry — is a growing sector of the knowledge economy. And community business and education leaders say this is an area ripe for improvement in Louisville.

“What we have found is just there is this unmet need for art and design professionals in the workplace,” said Meghan Greenwell, director of Institutional Advancement at the Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University in downtown Louisville.

“Different business owners have directly told me that they need creative problem-solvers and they can’t find them.”

Greenwell said that’s what she and others are working to address.

Theo Edmonds and Josh Miller started a company called Ideas xLab. They run a special kind of artist in-residence program.

“We place artists inside of corporate settings and inside of civic settings in communities for the purposes of bringing that creative mind to the table, to help reframe challenges and solve some of our most pressing problems as it relates to our workforce and economy,” Edmonds said.

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This is Edmonds' pitch: Today’s knowledge-based, tech-savvy economy needs not just computer coders and engineers. It needs artists.

Edmonds said artists, designers and creative people are becoming increasingly vital in corporate America. But an art degree will only get you so far. He said city officials and business leaders in Louisville need to start looking at arts culture and economic vitality holistically.

“It’s a huge thing,” Edmonds said. “If you said 25 years ago that creative problem-solving and storytelling was going to be one of the fastest-growing careers of the 21st century, I don’t think everyone would have agreed with you. But here we are, and it surely is.”

Edmonds said Louisville is particularly poised to create a one-of-a-kind art and tech convergence in the health care field, which is a focus for Ideas xLab.

Miller said one of their goals is to help raise the profile of the city, particularly with young, diverse creative workers.

“I think of one of the interesting ways that we can shift the way that people might view Louisville, especially young people, is as an outpost for coming here to be involved in really exciting and creative projects,” he said.

Greenwell said an influx of young, creative people in the city — which cities such as Austin and Denver have been experiencing in the past several years — would make a big difference.

“That’s the key. They need to stay here, create their homes here, their lives here, work here and then just by sheer numbers we are going to create that collective of people that are going to make a difference,” Greenwell said.

David Rouse, the research director for with the American Planning Association, said one way to do that is to make quality-of-life amenities in the city — which include arts and culture — a priority.

“It’s becoming critically important,” he said.

Rouse said young professionals with tech and creative skills have a lot of options. So they are looking to move to places that have features such as nice parks, good food and culture.

“It’s something companies are taking into consideration when they locate,” he said. “Plus, they need to attract knowledge workers so they want to locate in a place that has these amenities — these kind of things that people are looking for.”

Besides filling a need for companies, Rouse said investing in a vibrant scene for artists and creative people will also bring in tech and other knowledge workers.

“So it’s a combination of factors that I think a vibrant arts and culture scene can contribute to and really move a community forward in this regard,” he said.

Rouse said Louisville is already in a good spot because it already has much going for it in terms of arts and infrastructure. A strong parks system and well-regarded dining and drinking scenes are a good foundation for getting Louisville to compete with cities such as Nashville or Austin.

Meanwhile, Louisville's arts scene boasts the nationally significant Humana Festival of New American Plays. And the once-financially struggling Louisville Orchestra has begun to reclaim some of the cachet it held in the last century. The city is also the beloved hometown of the rock band My Morning Jacket, and has a proud history in its underground music scene.

But Rouse said it’s also difficult for city and business leaders to influence perception beyond the city limits.

“Obviously, they can’t dictate that that will happen, but I do think that they can act as catalysts and sort of facilitate and make things happen,” Rouse said.