The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing

Lisa Canning, Founder of The Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship

Yesterday I attended a Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce luncheon where Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour spoke. As a short list GOP potential candidate for 2012, and a strong advocate for entrepreneurship, I was curious to hear what he had to say, politics aside.

During his tenure in Mississippi, Barbour has been the poster child for job growth, luring new businesses into the state and working to make his state attractive to business investment. Recently the US Chamber of Commerce released a report titled: The Impact of State Employment Policies on Job Growth. Mississippi was ranked in the top performing tier of  states leading our economy forward when not all that long ago it was one of the worst.

So how did Barbour do it? According to the Governor he did it by not adding to the many existing federal workforce standards.  The relationship between a state’s labor and employment policies and its economic performance is well-documented. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that, in general, laws and regulations that inhibit the ability of workers and firms to negotiate and enforce efficient contracts raise the cost of labor, reduce employment and productivity, and slow economic growth.

“There was no benefit,” Barbour said, “to safety or for our working people to add another layer of regulations.” Instead, he said, he focused on improving the skills of the workforce, because he figuring a skilled workforce  would lead to more jobs. “The best way to improve revenues,” said Barbour, “Is more taxpayers.”

Interestingly, Illinois, and our friendly neighboring state of Wisconsin which has been so heavily featured in the media for all of their protests over changes in union labor rules, rank at the very bottom for US  job and new business creation.

During his speech yesterday, Barbour quoted FedEx Chairman – and fellow Mississippian –  Fred Smith, to explain Mississippi’s success. ” The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” he said. So what does that mean? Well, as Barbour explained, it meant that Mississippi focused on job and new business creation as their single measure of success because it was the only way out of the mess they were in.

So, while this may not seem as though Barbour’s speech applies to the arts, I think it does.  With  deep funding cuts and shrinking paying audiences, like Mississippi, we need to sharpen our focus. We need to create more jobs in our sector and redefine our business models to reinvigorate old audiences and identify new ones. We need to focus carefully on who we are,  and how what we do  can be more effectively delivered.

We need to focus on the ‘main thing’ that will allow us to get out of our own mess, so again the arts can grow. Barbour got the main thing right in Mississippi and look were it got his state. The arts community has something we can learn from Barbour’s work transforming Mississippi.

I believe the arts have new roles to play.  The arts have a voice that needs to be heard and can’t be sidelined or ignored if , as a sector, we focus on contributing to job growth and business creation. And to do this, we need to improve the skills of our workforce, because a skilled workforce leads to more of both.

To see where your state ranks in job and new business creation you can use  the interactive map found here.


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  • Lisa, a great and timely post as usual!

    My partners and I were just chatting this morning and wondering out loud if all entrepreneurs think that their product is for EVERYONE? We agreed that marketing our product to many groups is the key to success. Like the iPad for example, in a 30 second ad they ‘target’ a wide spectrum of folks from a working mom, to a music producer, to a Kindergarten-er. We would do well as artists to learn form this model.

    In our case, the goal is to create more music makers, which in turn leads to more music consumers of all kinds – from those buying printed music, concerts tickets, downloads, and instruments, to people taking lessons and joining bands. And this creates more jobs for our entire profession!

    The benefits of art is both in the doing and viewing. It’s as easy to understand for most people as ‘eat right and exercise’ for a healthy lifestyle. But it’s up to US as artists to keep the ‘main thing’ in mind as we each create in our own niche. Our professional health relies on individual artists to each remember the broader picture. Business creation for all leads to more for everyone.

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