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Cornered Extra: Christopher “Kip” Bergstrom

Kip Bergstrom standing in front of a City Canvas site. Photo by Robert Gregson.

Kip Bergstrom, Deputy Commissioner of the State of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, standing in front of one of the state of Connecticut's "Capital City Canvas" sites. Photo by Robert Gregson.

By Brian Goslow


Hartford, CT – (In the November/December 2012 issue of artscope magazine, managing editor Brian Goslow “cornered” Christopher “Kip” Bergstrom, Deputy Commissioner of the State of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Due to space restrictions, we could only print part of their hour-long discussion. Their talk continues here.)


BG: What brings the various facets under your job title together?


KP: The connection between all the things that I do — art, history, branding, tourism and stimulating the innovation side of the Connecticut economy — it sounds like a mish mash, but it’s not, because the common denominator among all those things is place — placemaking. Art and history are basically the two primary threads from which you weave the cloth of place. Tourism is selling what you’ve woven to outsiders so you leverage your local spending with outside dollars so you support the expansion of that cloth. Branding is really telling that story in a compelling way so that more folks will stay here, live here, build businesses here, and come to work in those businesses as young innovative talent attracted by the quality of your places.


The innovation ecosystem part of it is supporting the businesses that result from that and stimulating and accelerating their growth. We’ve sort of captured all that in this three-part mantra which is great art makes great places, great places attract great talent, great talent create great jobs. The totality of what I’m up to on any given day is working at all of those levels — the level of art and history, in place making and in conveying the quality of place to the outside world so folks do come here and working with that talent and the companies they’re part of to create the next economy. Those are all intertwined. On any given day, I’m working on all three of those dimensions.


BG: Connecticut is in the midst of its ‘Still Revolutionary’ tourism campaign. I read an article where you were discussing the value of a ‘single message’ campaign for the state. How difficult is it getting everyone aboard with the idea this is going to be the message and show how it’s going to benefit their organizations and businesses?


KP: You can only have one message for the state. It’s such a noisy media that if you have different messages for art, for historic preservation, for tourism, for talent recruitment, for business development, whatever else, none of them are going to break through. You want to find one unifying story that really captures the spirit of the state, past, present and future that will resonate with residents and that will actually make you more competitive for talent recruitment, for business recruitment, for tourism and for engaging all the creative energies of your people.


That’s what you’re trying to do with your brand — it’s a real tall order. ‘Still Revolutionary’ really captures that for Connecticut because it accurately expresses our history and our aspiration for the future. We are the place that is making the future today and that has been true throughout our history, and in no less in the arts than any other places. We are absolutely at the front of the pack in how to think about creative placemaking.


BG: Many of the country’s cities have become vibrant again after artists have moved into old industrial areas, often followed by the creation of arts districts with its new residents excited about bringing the past together with the future; similarly, long time residents who remember when those areas were vibrant, welcome their efforts. But once they succeed, both, find themselves forced out when rents go too high …


KP: What you said about historic places and how they often are sort of magnets for artists to sort of reinvent them and reinvigorate them, that’s absolutely true. The challenge is that oftentimes, that way that invention works is that these folks, these places, these wonderful places, fall on hard times. The rents become very cheap, the artists move in both because it’s cheap space and it’s wonderful space full of light and space that they really love to work in and they pioneer the neighborhood. They make the neighborhood cool and they a whole bunch of other folks follow them, the rents go up, and the artists, who all this time have been renting — they never bought, they tend not to — they get priced out and the cycle starts again.


They go someplace else and colonize it, pioneer it, but the neighborhood they left has turned from being kind of funky and cool to generic chic and you see that — Soho’s the classic (example). It was a really cool place there’s nothing cool about Soho now. It’s got the same generic boutiques that you’d find in any upscale district of any big city in any place in the world — and some not even so upscale, with few artists left.


It’s almost been inexorable as a pattern all over the place where artists colonize places, they make them cool and then folks flock to them, bid the rents up, and they become uncool places, just generic chic places. They’re successful economically, but there’s nothing arty or cool about them anymore.


BG: Is there a way to break this cycle to allow places to remain ‘cool’ forever?


KP: Part of it is you’ve got to manage to either keep some of your old buildings in unredeveloped condition where they’re still cheap or you need to build an affordable component into the redevelopment so you preserve the diversity of the people and types of retail and types of companies so it doesn’t all become upscale boutiques and corporate offices. That’s a tricky thing to do but it’s what we’ve been trying to figure out and why you can’t think of art by itself. It has to be part of a larger placemaking strategy that you utilize all your resources, including your historic preservation tax credits, where you spend your affordable housing money, where you do Main Street programs.


We’re trying to integrate all that and the next stage of it, beyond the work we’ve been doing for the last year in realigning our arts funding, the next stage is to think how do we integrate our art funding and our historic preservation funding so that we’re co-investing at the same time in the same place that has the result that the place keeps its richness and diversity over time and doesn’t just become and economically successful but soulless place over time. So that’s the trick that we’re going to try to figure out next. That is building on the work we’re doing with our arts funding.


BG: Normally, these places have lots of interesting histories in their past. How do you take that faded and usually long-gone past and make it relevent and attractive today?


KP: What happens is, you said, you see these places, these places with history, and in those places, on those buildings, on those cultural landscapes is written the history of innovation of our predecessors. They left their mark in our landscape and you cannot avoid seeing it. It just washes over you daily here and you get inspired by that to leave your own mark on the landscape. So that’s the connection to place making and ultimately to tourism, is that revolutionary thought and action comes a lot from the inspiration of place.


Inspiring places, places that matter and have these layers of meaning, that’s what people want to go visit. They don’t want to go visit the generic chic place that’s just like the last generic chic place they went to visit. They want to visit a place that’s unique, that has its own story, that no other place has and is still making that story and the residents are engaged with that story, understand it, there’s a buzz with it and when you go there, you hear the story, you experience it and when you come home, you tell that story to other people and you set off a chain reaction of other people coming. That’s what great places have, is that storytelling that’s alive. That’s what the brand means. It dips into that depth of places that matter, and places that matter are places people want to visit.


BG: How has the ‘Still Revolutionary’ campaign done for Connecticut?


KP: What we did initially, we’re using tourism as the engine to seed the brand because tourism marketing is a mass-market marketing, you have to use mass-market means like television to get to the tourism audience, and that gets your brand out there. The wonderful thing of tourism marketing is if you do it right, it more than pays for itself because it generates incremental visits and incremental spending, which produces incremental state taxes that end up more than paying for the cost of the campaign.


It only works if you have a large market next to you, like we do between Boston and New York that like to do things that they can do in Connecticut that they don’t know they can. So when you show them they can do the things they like to do here, you show people like them doing those things they like to do here, they will in fact do them here. If you’re marketing to them at the moment they’re making decisions about where to do those things, they’ll consider you, especially if they didn’t know they could do it in Connecticut prior to you telling them.


We’ve just had phenomenal increases in our online interactions with the market. Our website went up 100 percent; our facebook page went from 48 to number 8 in the country. For a while, it was number one in New England. We’ve had a huge increase in our online subscriber base and these are folks that become deeply engaged with the state and visit multiple times. We’re up over 500,000 folks; we have more online subscribers than the New York Times does. It’s been phenomenally successful.