May 8, 2020

The Creative Renaissance

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Vive le Creative Renaissance.

As the effects of COVID19 start to become apparent, so to does the fact that the world will change irreversibly in the years ahead, even as rules around physical distancing are relaxed, economies re-open and treatments for COVID19 become available, the emotional and financial impact will persist.

So before we look forward, we must look back. Thinking back 100 plus years ago, we can see four seminal periods that shaped humanity for the next 75 years beyond the Wars:

>World War 1 (1914- 1918)

>The Spanish Flu (1918 – 1920)

>The Great Depression (1929 – 1930s)

>World War 2 (1939 – 1945)

Not only did the deaths from these events wipe out a large part of humanity, but those surviving had to deal with the emotional and financial impact of a seemingly endless cascade of negative events. So how did they do it?

Creativity Amid Pandemics, Wars, and Turmoil

People gathered at bars and public houses in small groups. Fashion was important, as an expression of both creativity and decency. If you look back through the 1900s in Canada, even immigrant male workers showed up in a suit. Women would sew their own dresses. Different bars obviously catered to different classes of people, but the bar was the common ground, and people of all socio-economic classes dressed their best, drank, and danced to the early hours of the morning to get through it all. Fashion was more an expression of the times than a status symbol; as many clothes were handmade and hand-tailored, even some down-trodden folks looked handsome/beautiful.

There was an emergence of new types of music, such as Jazz. The high-flying (Roaring) ’20s saw a rise of wealthy industrialists and avant-garde cult characters such as the Great Gatsby who threw lavish parties and social events. These social events – while beneficial to attendees and socialites – also served as a way to finance and ‘bootstrap’ artists of that time period, leading to a new wave of music such as Jazz.

The decade that F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, hailed as “the Jazz Age” began when jazz was already the pop music of its time, especially among members of the younger generation in the 1920s.

The Rise of Jazz & Jukeboxes

As the rise of culture and music was happening in the United States in the ’20s, there was also the Prohibition between 1920 and 1933 that banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. This gave rise to the underground Speakeasies, which were disguised as other businesses and required members to enter with a secret knock.

Speakeasies were disguised as other businesses, like soda shops, cafes and  social clubs.  They were referred to as Speakeasies because of the need to keep quite about the real purpose of the establishment, so they were only talked about in whispers or to “speak easy”. 


As a result of the budding underground prohibition-era businesses and brands, many of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs and industrialists grew to prominence in the War years due to their expertise and social connections. Rumrunners in Canada expanded their business into the United States. Underground clubs became social mainstays in cities like New York, Boston, and Toronto. And savvy entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to expand production capacity, at a time when wages were depressed and a steady paycheque meant everything. By the time the 2nd World War reached the USA in the early 40s, there was a social imperative to scale it all up. All members of society were called on to produce, ration, and distribute goods.

Food and other materials were rationed, globally, especially in places like the UK who were near the epicenter of World War II.

Rationing in World War II – UK

Prices were fixed in the United States starting in 1941. This was obviously done to prevent crony-capitalist forces from gouging consumers for basic goods; naturally, however, it led to shortages in key consumer goods and paved the way to a black market and a two-tiered price system. Food stamps effectively served as an alternative currency during the War years.

For the housewife, the rationing system meant the mastery of a constantly changing system of point values in the papers; while shopping, she kept one eye peeled on the monetary price and the other on the little red numerals posted on the shelf below products indicating their point price. She practiced double budgeting: money and points. She had to keep track of which stamps were valid during a certain time period, which were outdated, and what they might buy.

The Two-Tier Rationing System

As we can see, not only did new goods and services get created in the period of Wars, Pandemics, and Turmoil in the early 20th century, but new social behaviors and financial systems were created. Relationships were more intimate and social circles were tight-knit, as prohibition-era restrictions and wartime measures required people to stick together. Artists and musicians were not global stars playing 24/7 on the media, but instead important members of their local communities who helped people stay upbeat; the dance halls and public houses were packed night in and night out, as people danced, drank and socialized to shake the shackles of this era. As we can see 100 years later, these citizens and their collective efforts paved the way for one of the greatest periods of economic and social progress in history following World War II.

The Creative Renaissance in the Modern Era

Amid the chaos of the COVID19 pandemic, we have already seen the crutches of the last decade(s) been clamped-down on dramatically: business travel, big events, and adventure tourism have been effectively frozen.

Furthermore, we have seen swaths of SME (small and medium enterprises) been forced to (temporarily) shut down. It is estimated that COVID19 could force approximately 40% of small businesses to close their doors permanently in Canada, for example. Depending on Government stimulus packages, re-opening timelines, and COVID19 hospitalization rates, it is expected this number will be similar in many other Western economies as well.

Perhaps the biggest shock of all, economically speaking, has been on the supply chain. Dislocations in Asian supply chains have caused a shortage in virtually all medical goods, and it is likely that those dislocations will spread into other consumer goods as the crisis deepens. We are seeing export bans on anything and everything that is deemed strategic by nations worldwide. Already, we have seen a huge push to rebuild local supply chains in North America; the question is how long that will take and what will happen in the interim.

While all this has been happening, the average employee or business owner has been stuck at home on Zoom trying to make sense of it all. Naturally, many digital-only companies and eCommerce platforms are doing very well (so far anyway) in the COVID19 crisis.

But a blanket lockdown is like the sledgehammer approach to the pandemic, and it can only last so long. Eventually, we all need to get back out there and live, connect, socialize, and move around. How that looks is the question – what does the Creative Renaissance in the 2020s look like?

Art, Music, and Local Gatherings

Ignoring the medical side of COVID19 for a minute, we must take inspiration from history and look at how Renaissances truly looked in the past.

Florence Piazza

First and foremost, they were built around creativity. People lived together in group situations (co-living?), and the financiers of the time bankrolled the artists and musicians since they were the catalysts that brought it all to life.

Social stratification was built more around those creative dimensions than employment. Where you worked would have been much less important than who you worked with. Status would be about what you brought to the table in a certain context, not what your net worth was. In that way, we may be expecting an entrepreneurial boom among the Millennials and GenZ.

Financially, this will have to be driven by collective platforms such as equity/donation-based crowdfunding, or through wealth transfer from the Baby Boomers on down. There is no point in trying to build advanced P&L 5-year forecasts for creative businesses in a pandemic and get VC funding. They need capital to get started but should be able to sustain their operations at a very low-cost base given the circumstances. This is more suitable to family money or crowdfunding financing that comes from the community.

We don’t have the Great Gatsbys yet. Young, rich entrepreneurs willing to open up their homes and properties to others – and subsidize their development – may emerge as a way to build physical, social connectivity. We shouldn’t expect Millennials and GenZ to return to small, boxy condos in the urban city and go to coworkings or offices every day; flex-working will be the new norm. There may be a combo of the two that emerges, and certain rural settings may be better suited than inner-city for certain types of entrepreneurs and creatives.

Swiss Escape

Local gatherings will be paramount, as we may have multiple COVID19 waves, regional lockdowns, and who knows what else during the next year or two. It can’t all be online. So individuals will have to adapt their routines and businesses may have to think more like the Speakeasies of the past. If you can’t fill to capacity, you may need to start ‘membership’ style services and add creative layers to the experience that uplift people – art, music, new ways to connect.

Ultimately, human ingenuity, innovation, and creativity will save the day amid the COVID19 crisis. Vive le Creative Renaissance.

Thumbnail Photo via ArtyFactory

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