Greenfield, MA

Contact Name
Leo Hwang
Project Dates
Artists and artisans have a crucial role in the sustainability of the creative economy. By utilizing a participatory action research approach seeded by the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Julie Graham’s study of community economies in the Pioneer Valley, The Rethinking the Creative Economy Project demonstrates how a collaborative research methodology can reappropriate development from the exploitation of artists and artisans as a panacea for economically challenged communities, to a tool that will help perform a postcapitalist environment. The project seeks to promote the explicit inclusion of a diverse economy that fosters both the possibility, and the reality, of an improved quality of life.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
The goals of the participatory action research (PAR) are (1) to create a pool of indigenous knowledge about the broad range of economic activities that artists and artisans participate in, and how these activities impact the community; (2) create avenues to share this knowledge with the region to increase an understanding of how artists and artisans impact our communities; (3) work with artists and artisans to select activities that foster the growth and adaptation of existing diverse economic practices; and (4) assist the community in recognizing available resources and possible funding sources to support and strengthen their creative economy.

In addition, the project coordinators will publish findings in print and electronic formats, present at local and national conferences, actively seek forums that will assist Franklin County’s endeavors to obtain support and funding for the creative economy, and through a consulting role, help foster the development or expansion of promising practices uncovered through the PAR component of the project. The coordinators also hope to build an interdisciplinary (sociology and geography) curriculum designed to utilize PAR for community economies where we will teach students at the University of Massachusetts and Greenfield Community College how to utilize the tools of PAR to research their own communities and identify opportunities for development.
Have they changed over time?
When the everyday practices of artists and artisans are called economic it moves the economy from an abstract thing that individuals have no control over, to something tangible and actionable. The practices provide both an opportunity to validate the creative economic arrangements of the artists (allowing them to see themselves as economic actors), and provide a set of practices that can be a model for other artists and regional developers.
Julie Graham advised us, “Start where you are.” Utilizing the assets of our researchers, our artists and artisans, we started with their assets, and gifted them with value. From there a transformation occurred from an identity wrought with needs, into an identity of power and agency, where they then had the capacity to induce change within themselves and the population of peers that they interviewed. And finally, the transformed identity of artists can then perform that agency in the broader community in which they participate.
The Rethinking the Creative Economy Project uses poststructuralist participatory action research to disrupt the capitalocentic and needs-based development discourse for the creative economy in the Greater Franklin County, MA. We borrow this strategy from Jenny Cameron, Katherine Gibson, Julie Graham and the Creative Economies Collective. This approach, which uses the disruption to foreground economic diversity and community assets, is a particularly good fit to the creative economy.
Much of the economic activity of this sector falls outside of traditional measures that rely on lodging statistics, tax receipts, and household income. By focusing on non-capitalist practices and a diverse economy, we can engender agency where there was a narrative of subjugation.
Similarly, when we placed value on practices that artists and artisans were engaged in, narratives of survival and success, as defined by the artists and artisans, emerged. Even the narratives of failure, were ones that inspired the research team to learn from and try again. We found that artists and artisans in the region are motivated by a variety of values—community building, creating and sharing beauty, sustainability, and social justice.
Through disrupting the capitalocentric needs-based development discourse, a space opened for regional artisans and artists to define themselves as economic agents and to see their work and values as supportive assets with the potential to transform and perform what was seen as marginal into a viable alternative, a resource to nurture and grow. By defining their own vision of success and prioritizing creative expression, a quality of life can be experienced by artists and artisans, even if it is simultaneously experienced with challenges and hardships. This recognition of a poststructural existence and its multiple realities is central to helping artists and artisans recognize avenues for expanding possibility, and it is central to helping communities evolve into providing more inclusive and intersectional resources for all of its people.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
The University of Massachusetts’ President’s Creative Economy Initiatives Fund
Greenfield Community College
The Massachusetts Cultural Council
The Fostering Art and Culture Project
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
Working collaboratively with the FACP, and utilizing the models employed by J.K. Gibson-Graham in their Community Economies projects, the project co-coordinators, Abby Templer (University of Massachusetts, Sociology), and Leo Hwang (University of Massachusetts, Geosciences; Greenfield Community College, Dean of Humanities) draw from and contribute to the construction of dialogue around the creation and recognition of diverse economic practices in the creative economy.

We drew from a demographically diverse representation of various genres of artists and craftspeople (writers, painters, musicians, wood workers, potters, sculptors, photographers, DIY, etc.), and various sectors of the creative economy (technology, design, etc.). We will also seek participation from local governments and the Franklin County Council of Governments so that we can have the opportunity to contribute to creating and changing regional development policy in ways that support the creative economy of Franklin County.

The project co-coordinators provided training in: looking for diverse economic practices, cultivating reflexivity and understanding positionality, interviewing techniques, and training on comfortably using digital recorders. Each researcher was responsible for completing a minimum of five interviews over eight weeks that explore their peer artists and artisans and the diverse kinds of economic activity in which they are engaged. We met with the researchers after the second set of interviews for a preliminary debriefing and trouble-shooting session, and provided an introduction to collaborative analysis. We met again at the end of the project to share our findings, participated in a collaborative analysis, and selected strong practices that the group would like to promote or strengthen in the region.
Have they been refined over time?
Building from assets is a fortifying action, one that calls upon individuals to work within expanding circles of radii encompassing greater definitions of community. The closeness of an immediate family grows to encompass all the actors who are upholding an environment. For an alternate environment to exist, to be hewn out of the capitalocentric space, the actors need to be recognized and nurtured. What is beyond the capitalocentric experience, beyond its capacity for empathy, is a richness filled by the diverse activities that build the community economy.
What were your major obstacles?
Within the rural environment of Franklin County, a community economy is not a panacea. Clearly, there are challenges and needs that can be difficult to address solely through the community economy. When the relationships that generate exchange within the community economy break down, particularly in a rural region where distance and isolation can accentuate the loss or absence of a service or need, the delicate balance that many of our artists and artisans are treading between agency and a lack of agency, or subsistence and a more dire poverty, can be easily upset. Nevertheless, the fact that the balance is fragile or imperfect does not negate the positive impacts that most certainly alter the life circumstances of artists and artisans. The challenges that emerge from a community economy need to be examined as grounds for possibility, just as incipient with flaws, imperfections, bounty, and capacity as a capitalist system. Only, in a postcapitalist framing, the community economy has a greater capacity of possibility than in the capitalist economy, primarily because policy and practice have not yet fully embraced its existence and potential.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The Rethinking the Creative Economy Project proposes that utilizing a performative approach where artists and artisans are the source of knowledge for factors that impact their quality of life, and the source of solutions to their economic challenges, can raise the awareness of creative approaches to a diverse community economy and create better pathways to development of the creative economy than standard export-base economic practices. By raising the profile of artists’ contribution to the economic sustainability of the region, we can better value the endogenous assets already present in the region . By strengthening assets, like self-provisioning and barter networks, communities can generate a greater return on an investment that directly impacts people, rather than hiring a firm to modestly increase tourism through a campaign targeting international travellers. We can also begin to reimagine an alternative way of surveying an economic landscape and creating economic development plans that serve to subvert and invert the paradigm so that non-capitalist and alternative capitalist practices are primary, and capitalist practices are relegated as secondary less successful options for improving the quality of life for individuals and communities . At the core of our research is defining a purpose of any economy as an inclusive system that seeks to improve the quality of life for all people, and to do that, communities need to reappropriate how development efforts and funding are distributed and theorized.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. It is crucial to utilize a perspective that starts from assets and is inclusive of a diverse economy that incorporates capitalist and non-capitalist practices.
2. Utilize the knowledge, skills, and energy of artists and artisans as knowledge producers.
3. Generate research for the community rather than the academic.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
The research team is taking a performative approach to research, starting from the epistemological position that “knowledge [is] a practice of performing the world that we live in, and perhaps more importantly of performing the world that we might live in” (Cameron 2008, 6). This approach follows the intellectual tradition of J.K. Gibson-Graham to highlight and support existing diverse economic practices through our research, aiming to enact the world we want to inhabit. A performative approach recognizes that research is not value neutral; rather, the research team’s values become the launch pad for performing the community economy.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
To reframe how and what we question, and what we assume to have power, each of the activities, each of the actions, become features in the landscape of an interconnected socio-economic geography. The capitalist practices, the diverse economic practices, and the community building practices all work together to help produce the environment we inhabit and seek to inhabit.
Were there unexpected impacts?
Artists and artisans are central to the creative economy. By incorporating the diverse economies framework in a way that is inclusive of their assets and the full range of work they do, a reality can manifest itself in a way that strengthens communities and enables the realization of new possibilities though a new localized understanding of development and agency. The needs experienced and expressed by regional artists do not go away, but foregrounding the tools artists use to achieve success, opens a window into a new way for artists to think about the work they do—it opens new sources of valuation. By disrupting the over-focus on needs, asset framing opens the door to revalue existing practices.