After graduating from high school, Elizabeth Currid intended on going to Vassar. Her parents had a different agenda, shipping her off instead to Carnegie Mellon—it was a “national university” as opposed to a “grooming school,” her father argued.
“I recall that the only thing that even remotely assuaged my general distress of having to attend a nerdy, technical school in grey, cloudy Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the fact that Andy Warhol had gone there too and so it just couldn’t be that bad,” Currid writes in the preface to her first book, The Warhol Economy, to be feted three weeks from now at Deitch Projects. “In retrospect, it seems befitting that my initial footsteps into the intellectual world began with Warhol, the very man who encapsulates so much of the social and economic dynamics of New York’s artistic and cultural world that I am writing about ten years later.”
The 28-year-old, now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, graduated twice from that nerdy tech school, then went on to receive her Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia University in 2006. The Warhol Economy began as her dissertation there. In 2005, encouraged to pursue a book deal by her mentor, theorist Richard Florida of “creative class” fame,
she sent a draft of her first chapter to Princeton University Press.
“I honestly didn’t think I had a shot in hell!” Currid tells me. “I didn’t have my Ph.D., and I wasn’t even halfway done writing the draft of my thesis, let alone a decent final version.” But a few weeks later she received a note from Tim Sullivan, the academic press’s sociology and economics editor, asking for more. “I remember we met in this coffee shop near Penn Station, and he knew so much about music and art and culture—he really cared about the things I wrote about in my dissertation and really gave my ideas immediate investment . . . I got the book deal that December.”
An exploration of how fashion, art, and music drive New York City, The Warhol Economy argues that the city’s cultural resources contribute more to the economy than most policy makers realize or admit. Interviews with well-known bands, designers, artists, club owners, and writers underscore the value of cultural producers; an appendix’s worth of hard numbers back them up. “Art and culture are essential in providing not just jobs and revenue but also New York’s competitive advantage against other metropolitan and global cities,” writes Currid. “And they also form a several-billion-dollar industry, the magnitude of which is much harder to grasp than finance or law or manufacturing due to its hybrid nature . . . . [I]f we tack on nightlife—a $9.2 billion industry—the impact of the cultural economy rivals and even outperforms that of most other sectors.”
Parts of The Warhol Economy are certainly sluggish; after all, despite the sexy subject material, this is still an academic endeavor. The author’s insistence on using both first and last names upon second (and third, and fourth) mentions—”designer Zac Posen,” pages 42, 91, 157; “artist Ryan McGinness,” pages 41, 90, 100, 166; etc.—is mildly irritating for anyone (me) even vaguely familiar with these worlds. The charts in the back are a tough slog. But the overall findings of Dr. Currid (who’s also stirring up talk independent of her publication—her head shot, accompanying a theory posited on Gawker, elicited responses from “post-doc hot” to “half- naked, dewy and really confused-looking”) are engaging.
“So much of the economic and social dynamics that propel New York’s cultural economy lie in the informal, casual, and spontaneous interactions among creative people that occur while they’re running to get coffee or at a gallery opening or hanging out at their favorite bar,” she tells me. “These interactions and exchanges rely on a density of creativity. As New York City becomes increasingly cost-prohibitive, people have to move further and further out, thus decreasing the critical mass of creative people living, working, and hanging out in the same place. The exchanges that lead to new jobs, new collaborations and innovations become less and less possible.”
When looking at how to preserve the city’s cultural economy, Currid argues, one of the things policy makers need to consider is how to preserve these dense creative communities—utilizing policies such as rent caps and rent stabilization and zoning for artists’ residences. “Another approach is to be protective,” she continues. “Establish ‘anti-gentrifying’ initiatives, like zoning against luxury condos in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side and not letting Starbucks put a store up on every block . . . Arts and culture shouldn’t just be appreciated for their symbolic values, their aesthetics, because they’re fun: They’re real economic drivers. They produce millions of dollars of revenue.”
Which is to say, there’s now documented proof that New York’s taste makers need to drink together for the sake of the city’s financial health. Cheers to that.