Brilliant Disguise 

The I.E. conference was a celebration of Richmond's creative class. Too bad it came about eight years too late.

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I recently spent an entertaining workday soaking up stories about artists, absorbing info about business start-ups, and conversing with attractive people in horn-rimmed glasses over chicken kabobs and orzo. I also took an invigorating walk around Shockoe Slip, picked up handy tips about grass-roots marketing and endured some pretentious performance art.

When it was over, I’m glad I went to the “I.E.” conference, an all-day affair held at LaDifférence and sponsored by the Greater Richmond Chamber.

While I met people who came to I.E. on their day off, and talked with a few curious retirees looking for new challenges, it seemed that many of the 200-plus attendees at this affair were there because — as employees of law firms, ad agencies and electrical co-ops — it was a mandated field trip. Mayor Dwight Jones also was present, as were many of the city’s titans of industry. I assume that, politics and business being what they are, their appearances were work requirements also.

The tone of this creativity summit was somewhere between a hipper, more localized version of a Zig Ziglar motivational seminar — audience members were instructed to yell “brilliant” whenever they felt inspiration — and a commercial for Richmond’s creative class. I’m still not sure if this was meant to be a celebration of Richmond’s most talented, or an instructional “how to be creative” workshop. It wanted to be both, and that probably means it was neither. At one point, a group of school children sang a song about how they were all going to be leaders, which included lyrics about “skill sets” and “synergizing,” prompting one volunteer to sheepishly wonder if the ghost of Ayn Rand was in the house.

Even the mayor — no fan of “embracing the weird” of Austin, Texas — got caught up in buzz-phrase fever, telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch afterward that “we need to embrace the creative energy, and the city needs to create a platform for the energy to be released.” Um … brilliant?

Still, as chamber-sponsored dog-and-pony shows go, the “Innovative Excellence” conference had undeniable appeal. And some of the folks at the podium, such as Samantha Marquez, a 14-year-old who has several pending medical patents, were downright inspirational.

To its credit, the event was being co-directed by some locals with bona fides, such as artist Ed Trask and blogger-turned-consultant John Sarvay, and spotlighted genuinely interesting presenters — erroneously called “provocateurs” — such as Style Weekly’s Valley Haggard and area musician Cam DiNunzio. The grass-roots focus was in sharp contrast to recent chamber-led initiatives, such as a road trip to Austin this spring, where local business leaders ignored and downplayed the ways that Austin (“The Live Music Capital of the World”) has dealt with many of the same problems that Richmond faces with — yes — its creative community.

And then there was the big question: Who was all of this for?

The I.E. event couldn’t have been for Richmond’s so-called creative thinkers. Most of the people I’d identify as local spark plugs would have spent the conference’s hefty $125 admission fee on something more practical — a rent payment, say, or a new piece of software.

And it was anything but wise for the chamber to lightly throw around such terms as provocateur, which means “one who provokes.” Anyone who would have fit that description was conspicuously absent. A genuine provocateur surely would have reminded everyone that we’ve been down this creatively paved road many times before.

In 2003 the Greater Richmond Partnership brought in Richard Florida, author of the immensely popular “The Rise of the Creative Class,” to speak to a similarly eager crowd of politicians and business people. Florida’s appearance was preceded by a special event in his honor where, as at LaDiff, a similar celebration of local innovators was held. I should know. I was the freelance creative person contracted to write the script for that 2003 presentation.

More than eight years later, Florida’s theories remain both common-sense and counterintuitive. Today’s economy runs on creative and innovative ideas, he preaches, so any city hoping to thrive needs to cultivate its creative citizens. Seattle, for example, has made its mark because so-called misfits — such as Bill Gates and Kurt Cobain — were able to plug in easily to the community and gain acceptance — and investment. On the other side of the coin, a “country club” community, as Florida called Richmond, disregards youth, change and alternative lifestyles.

While nothing tangible followed the professor’s appearance, it’s interesting to note how many times his ideas have been bandied about since 2003 — not least during Richmond’s last mayoral election, where no fewer than three of the candidates cited him by name, including our current mayor. The theories and research of Florida — now the head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto — have been dropped into the public conversation to justify everything from new condominiums to a downtown arts center to the latest coffeehouse opening up down the street. Which only highlights what, for critics, is the real problem of Florida’s creative class ethos: It can be twisted and misconstrued to mean just about anything, and therefore nothing.

Still, the professor’s basic reading of Richmond’s problems was backed up by a never-ending wave of visionaries and consultants commanding high speaking fees who underlined, blue-penned and circled the same prognosis for Richmond’s business leaders.

The most telling of these came from the business community’s own preferred oracle, consultant James Crupi, who wrote in a 2007 report on Richmond’s future: “[Leaders should] involve people with social and intellectual capital and youth with regularity. For too long, [Richmond’s] business community has not placed social and intellectual capital on par with economic strength when working on community problems.” The conservative Crupi came awfully close to sounding like, well, a provocateur: “Wisdom and experience when coupled with the creativity and drive of young people is a powerful combination that needs to be leveraged.”

In the end, the most memorable episode encountered at I.E. came during an off-the-cuff, unscripted and buzz-phrase-free moment. It was when one speaker, Rand Burgess, the owner of the Camel nightclub, was asked point blank: “What can the city do to help you?”

“It can get out of my way,” he replied.

It was the kind of thing one would expect from a provocateur … i.e., it was brilliant.

Don Harrison is Style Weekly’s arts and culture editor.

This essay has been corrected from the print edition.

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