There's opportunity in Memphis for creative professionals

The Creative Works conference, held every October in Memphis since 2014, is about more than attending panels and printing lanyards.

Leaders behind the annual conference for creative professionals have expanded their scope to organize year-round programming with the goal of reaching 10,000 creative professionals working in Memphis by 2030. 

Memphis has about half of the density people working in creative fields compared to comparably sized cities, said Dan Price, COO of nonprofit Creative Works.

That means about 5,000 Memphians are employed as creative professionals, such as graphic designers, web developers, art directors and film and video editors.

“What we found is that Memphis has a creative drought,” Price said. New programs, like a low-cost design bootcamp, intend to equip residents with the skills needed to support a thriving creative economy.

Recent data from Americans for the Arts shows that arts-related industries are a major economic driver in Shelby County as nonprofit arts and culture drives $197.3 million in annual spending within Shelby County.

Creative Works sees a cultural and economic tipping point in cities when 1% of their workforce is made up of creative professionals. The latest U.S. data shows Memphis just under half a percent.

“The impact that arts and creativity has on culture and economy is kind of undeniable,” said Price. 

“Creative people have so much influence on the amenities of a city, especially in urban areas like Midtown and Downtown. We think with a greater density of creative people, people working to solve problems, we'll be able to see and feel changes in the culture of Memphis as a whole.”

Creative Works evolved into a year-round organization in 2016. The nonprofit’s cornerstone event, the Creative Works conference, has grown tremendously since its debut in 2014 and has garnered national attention. Forty percent of this year’s 400 conference attendees are from out-of-town.

Several local makers will showcase their products at the open-to-the-public Creative Works market, held October 6 and October 7 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at The Halloran Center.

When the conference wraps, attendees can continue to benefit from programs such as monthly meetups, bi-monthly lectures on topics such as branding and Squarespace basics and a high-profile guest speaker series.  

Grizzlies Prep 7th graders Nigel Pruitt, Kylan Fullilove and Michael Webb brainstorm ideas for designing shoes to go along with their individual brands that they've been establishing throughout the semester as part of a Creative Works course.

Underscoring the in-person events is a drive to increase the talent pool of creative professionals.

The demand is present, Price said.

“We [leadership at Creative Works] all come from agency backgrounds and we’ve see firsthand, over the past 10 years, how everyone is struggling to find talent. We know there's not a talent pool out there that's waiting for jobs,” Price said.

To prime the pump for advances in Memphis’ creative workforce, the nonprofit launched in July a design extracurricular course at Grizzlies Prep. Blake Lam, the organization’s director of youth education, has been leading courses in creativity and design for 7th and 8th graders.

In September, the organization wrapped a 12-week design boot camp where people learned practical design skills. Weekly sessions covered topics including the fundamentals of creative thinking and the ins-and-outs of Adobe Creative Cloud.

Sarah Blackburn, development and communications manager for ArtsMemphis, said the course fills a resource gap in Memphis.

“It's something we don't have in Memphis, and it's an asset,” she said.

As a participant in the course, Blackburn designed a creative brief, logo, brochure and other materials for Urban Paddle, an awareness campaign to encourage more Memphians to paddle the urban section of the Wolf River.

“I'm a [Memphis College of Art] graduate and I am the alumni president, so I want Memphis to invest in their creatives. It's not just for our designs abilities but our culture,” Blackburn said.

“There are so many studies that talk about how more corporations need to hire more creatives because we can think about problem solving in a different way than someone who is analytical. We can look at the entire picture," she added.

Information about Creative works programs and the annual conference, held October 5 through October 7, can be found here.

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.