Collaborations between arts, businesses led to Austin’s unique UNESCO cultural designation, SXSW panelists say


As the only American city to be named by UNESCO as a Creative City under the art media designation, Austin is a trendsetter in how cities can promote the arts. At a South by Southwest Conference and Festivals panel, professionals from the art world stressed the importance of strengthening bonds between businesses and artists to keep the local art scene thriving.

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network is made up of 180 member cities from 72 countries, all sorted into seven creative fields. Austin is the only American city to be named under the media arts designation. Other cities worldwide named media art cities include Linz, Austria, and Sapporo, Japan, which had representatives on the SXSW panel.

The United Nations’ cultural branch determines new members by the use of creativity as a strategy to sustainably develop the cities’ economic, social, cultural and environmental growth, said Meghan Wells, the head of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division.

The Cultural Arts Division falls under the economic development department. Art, music and culture are important components of life in Austin, she said. The cities’ growth over the past two decades paired with its unique culture led to it being named a UNESCO Creative City in 2015.

“We just had a great mix of private sector initiatives with a creative components and community-based nonprofits that are doing creative work,” Wells said. “A lot of Austin artists wear different hats, so there’s a gray line between art and technology that’s just inherent in the work that they’re doing. It was just fertile ground for us to explore how this [UNESCO] designation could propel us forward.”

In the future, Wells said she hopes the business and art sectors of the city will continue to come together for not only their mutual benefit, but for the good of all of Austin residents.

“The artists themselves are natural collaborators, especially in Austin, but I’d love to see collaboration stretch into the private sector so there’s more of a natural job growth or creative collaborations,” Wells said. “That kind that elevate the artists’ work, but also elevate Austin’s reputation as a place where creative things are happening.”

Austin residents can take advantage of local art too, Wells said. She recommends that Austinites visit to tap in to the local art scene and see what exhibit, performance or installation is available in their corner of the city.

“There’s a ton going on all the time,” Wells said. “We really need to support our local artists so they continue to live here and make Austin the amazing place it is.”

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