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Creative Capital

Los Angeles has a new group of working-class heroes — and they don’t man the docks. A study commissioned by Otis College of Art and Design reveals that while tourism and international trade receive all the hype, the creative industries are the dominant economic force in L.A. and Orange counties.

“Too many people dismiss creative activities as frill or fluff,” says Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, which conducted the study, “but they’re not. Creativity is the primary industry of the region. You’re looking at about 10 percent of the jobs in L.A. County.”

You’re looking at big money too. With $140.5 billion in sales receipts for 2005, the creative economy is the single largest industry in L.A. and Orange counties. Independent artists, writers and performers alone contributed more than $1.7 billion to the L.A. County economy in 2005. Not too shabby — although a little paltry compared to the $3 billion to $4 billion generated by the adult-film industry. (In fairness, there’s probably some overlap, though porn’s economic impact isn’t specifically referenced in the study.)

Interestingly enough, while most people would assume that Hollywood accounts for most of L.A.’s creative economic boom, the study shows that this isn’t necessarily the case. With $35.4 billion in sales, film production is indeed the leading artistic industry, but fashion, with $32.9 billion in sales, isn’t far behind. The rising economic star of the region, however, is furniture making and home design, which accounts for a surprising $12.5 billion in sales in L.A. and Orange counties.

But while the economic impact of such obviously creative endeavors is impressive, a few rather generous selections managed to infiltrate the report. Counted among the study’s list of creative ventures are the stealth bomber, valet parking, the fortune cookie and the Mars Rover program.

“The digital-mapping technology developed in the Rover program has had tremendous value for other creative fields,” explains Kyser. “An architect can now take people on a virtual tour of a building while it’s still on what used to be called the drawing board.”

All right, point taken on that one — but valet parking?

Regardless, even if the report’s criteria for creativity is a little, well, creative, its findings are still compelling. “The Los Angeles region has the 17th largest economy in the world,” says Otis President Sammy Hoi, “and creativity is its No. 1 driver. That’s very exciting news. This is a section of the economy that has largely been taken for granted, and what this report shows is that we need to work on strengthening opportunities for growth.”

Perhaps, but while filled with fascinating statistics, the report is noticeably short on policy initiatives — focusing mainly on improving K-12 arts education and restoring “industrial arts” like wood shop to the classroom. “A person who enjoyed wood shop can design furniture,” the study notes. True enough, but commissioning an economic study to advocate getting wood shop back into the classroom seems like a little overkill, doesn’t it?

Probably, but in this case policy appears to be secondary to prodding the creative beast of the East. New York may have the reputation of being the creative mecca of the United States, but Los Angeles, it turns out, has the jobs. L.A. County boasts a creative work force of 346,000 — a staggering 47 percent more of such workers than there are in the New York metropolitan area. In pure numbers, even New York’s renowned fashion industry lags behind that of L.A.’s.

And thus we may have found the point. While Juilliard, Parsons, FIT and Pratt are all fine and dandy, if all you prospective art students out there want to actually work when you graduate, you might just want to stick a little closer to home.

“At Otis, we don’t believe in the starving artist,” says Hoi. And now they have the study to prove it.


Click here to download a copy of the Otis College Report on the Creative Economy of Los Angeles.