Art attracts: imagination is trumping tradition amid rapid change across our state.

Author:Mildenberg, David

Creativity is hot, making it the right time to focus on the increasing prominence of the arts in economic development, our magazine's theme this month. Writing about large investments, impressive new technologies or influential, straight-laced leaders is our usual fare because much business journalism is about following the money and folks who get stuff done. Over BNC's 36 years, you won't find many cover photos of wealthy executives dressed like Stephen Hill, this month's featured leader.

But embracing creativity in all facets of life has gained enormous appeal and is quickly overcoming conformity, both in fast-growing cities and more tradition-bound smaller communities like Hill's Kinston. It's evident in the growing popularity of groups celebrating creative thinking; the soaring real estate values of warehouse-turned-arts districts that attract singles, young families and empty-nesters; corporate America's relaxed dress code; and perhaps most trivially, in the increased prevalence of tattoos, ethnic foods and beer spiced with jalapenos, beets or whatever.

It's no coincidence that fast-growing business centers--Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, Nashville, Seattle--are among the cities most willing to embrace change. Tax and labor rates matter, but so do many other factors.

"Creativity is so hot because collaboration is the key for big breakthroughs in business," says freelance copywriter Matt Olin, a leader of the Creative Mornings movement that draws hundreds of artists, bankers, techies and others to monthly breakfasts in Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh. "The real shining creative moments--such as products that are innovative and capture people's attention--usually come as a result of collaboration."

Such talk can sound squishy and ironic given the fast-declining reputation of liberal-arts education, which promotes creativity and independence. For decades, economists and others have...

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