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An Interview with Hunter O'Hanian of the MassArt Foundation

Posted by Devin Cole  September 19, 2011 11:07 AM

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Photo by JWLensworks

Hunter O'Hanian is Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Executive Director of the MassArt Foundation. He and BWP Connector Kelly Brilliant dug into the concepts of design and the creative economy.

1) Richard Florida and others have popularized the concept of "the creative economy. " How would you define it, particularly for those who may be skeptical that it is just trendy economist jargon that exists more in theory than in reality?

It is the real economic activity which is a direct result from creative endeavors. The range is quite large as it varies from artists in their studios in Boston’s South End to galleries on Newbury Street, to the 1,000+ employees at the Museum of Fine Arts to the thousands working in the design related companies throughout the state. There is virtually no economic sector which does not contribute to the creative economy. Grocery store chains, financial institutions, hospitals, and universities make up the largest employers in Massachusetts and each and every one of them use members of the creative economy to succeed in their business model.

2) It seems to me that you have been at the forefront of the creative economic boom in your work in Provincetown, Aspen and now here in Boston as VP of Institutional Development for MassArt. What made you get involved in the "business of creativity"? What are some key lessons you've learned along the way? What are the critical components that a community needs to enable its creative economy to thrive?

Culture and creativity is what drives us as a society and defines who we are as a people. I have been attracted to the creative economy in the places I have lived because it combines some simple elements which I find important: creativity, entrepreneurialism, collaboration and good citizenship. Through the work I’ve done in different communities, I’ve found that this is not always easy work, as it is often difficult to quantify the results, which some business-minded folks need to see in order to believe. Other issues arise from the mixing cultures and the problems inherent in achieving successful collaborations.

But for any creative economy to survive, it needs the support of the local government, business leaders and most importantly the cultural community’s understanding that they have a role in making it successful.

3) MassArt has one of the longest traditions in the country in educating and incubating people and ideas that grow the creative economy. Can you speak a bit about MassArt's philosophy and vision in this realm? What are the big creative economic ideas and/or partnerships that MassArt is pursuing now?

MassArt was founded in 1868 to solve a creative economy problem. At the time, the mills in towns like Lowell, Lawrence, Fall River and New Bedford had to transport artists from England to Massachusetts to draw patterns for lace and shoes for manufacture. The mill owners, who were the largest employers at the time, went to the state leaders and suggested we should offer a public education for artists so they could design work that would be made in the mills. A school was created and that is what is today known as Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

139 years later, we continue to play an important role in the state’s creative economy. 60% of our 15,000 living alumni live in Massachusetts, with an average age of 46 years old. More then 70% of them are working in creative jobs.

We continue this tradition with our current students by continuing to keep our cost of education affordable and creating linkages between graduates and the work force. We also have been a moving force behind DIGMA – an effort to galvanize the design related industries in Massachusetts. Our successes in this area will only continue as in May 2012 we will begin construction on a $30 million Center for Design and New Media here at MassArt.

4) It seems to me that even in tremendously difficult economic times, artists and other creative people survive and often thrive. Given the economic straits we're in now, I think readers would be very interested to know: What's the secret?

Like many other areas in the economy, artists have had a tough time over the past couple of years. However, some in this industry are more resilient as they work in a field which has never had it easy. They are used to making do with less and are uniquely fleet-footed and entrepreneurial. Some artists could teach corporate American important lessons about remaining true to core values while cutting costs and making do with less.

5) Some people believe that art should be created, experienced and appreciated for its own sake, and that discussions of art bolstering an economy miss or adulterate the point of art. What would you say to these people?

Art is a very complex and sophisticated form of communication that serves many different purposes. For those who want it to be purely esoteric, either as makers or viewers, they should pursue that track. Personally, I am one who makes and enjoys art with little, if any, connection to commerce.

However, just because some can make work disconnected from commerce, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that others want to make work that is related to commercial activity. Since we live within such a commercial world, thank goodness there is a healthy dose of creatively mixed in to some of today’s businesses. Imagine what our world would be if the commercial work was devoid of creativity. Apple computer’s net worth recently outranked Exxon. It is nice to know that the business world can find success by utilizing creativity.

6) On a more personal note, what's the most creative thing you've done recently?

I have always been a maker of work and it is something that I continue to do. Recently, I have been working with a number of other artists on a series of portraits designed to address how gender, orientation and the human form are viewed by society.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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