Community Cultural Development: Arts Lead

Menominee motif demonstrating community cultural ties

Artists can parlay community cultural development into a full-bodied neighborhood renaissance. They like the big spaces, quirkiness, and blank canvas of a forgotten geography.

Their creativity can "see" possibilities in abandoned factories, neglected neighborhoods, odd buildings, old churches, industrial dinosaurs, and architectural treasures in isolated places. Given some latitude, an arts-based approach, whether based on the traditional arts and folk arts of your area or on artists that you attract from elsewhere, can revive unloved spaces in your town or urban neighborhood.

This trend has been growing exponentially in the last few years in the community development field. The only caution we want to raise is that some of you already have a native culture, indigenous tradition, or strong local arts history that you probably should reinforce and emphasize rather than importing talent from elsewhere. An example is the beautiful graphic on this page. Check out our answer to a viewer question about indigenous culture and community development

If you have any potential for using the traditional arts as a basis for community revitalization, we strongly urge that you emphasize those. Many communities will have such an advantage if they comb through their history carefully.

How Can You Attract Artists to Live and Work in a Neighborhood?

We have an entire page on arts and economic development, so you will want to check that out.  This page includes only the briefest answer to our question, since we are concentrating on a culturally-based and themed arts strategy.

Sometimes cities try to offer free or very low cost space to artists who will populate a neighborhood. If land values are quite low, this is practical. In Paducah, Kentucky, the city carried out a smart advertising campaign to bring artists to live in abandoned buildings within a neighborhood.

While that project is encountering some difficulties, allegedly because city services and investments have not been quite as forthcoming as some artists wanted, the model is sound.

Where there are a group of artists, there will be a group of shoppers, just like Automobile Row or a row of women's clothing stores. The presence of artists as residents also will mean that coffee houses, bars, and inexpensive restaurants are likely to spring up. Expect an impromptu streetscape project, a wall mural, or a flash mob of some sort. Maybe even some graffiti art that townspeople will disagree with.

Advantages of Community Cultural Development

Whether you bring together visual artists to live and work within a particular community, or whether you simply create a hub for performing arts activities, community cultural development offers several advantages:

  1. You can retain your own locally grown artists, who should be the leaders in demonstrating and interpreting your local history and culture to any other artists who migrate to your area.
  2. You have the potential to educate residents from outside the arts zone about the value of local culture, thereby encouraging citizen loyalty to the community.
  3. Arts customers and consumers tend to be above-average in income and education. If they come to the area in question, they will spend on other items.
  4. Artists themselves add individual touches that will attract the young, lower-income, but upwardly-mobile customer.
  5. The arts have the capacity to attract considerable publicity and attention.
  6. Visual artists, especially those who work in larger less delicate media, such as sculpture, will tackle very forsaken buildings, places, and materials fearlessly. What is a huge pile of mess to most of us is a treasure trove of art supplies to them! Just turn them loose in an abandoned industrial facility and see what happens.
  7. If you treat the artists well, they will be so surprised that they can really become involved in your community. (Just don't expect free public art though.)
  8. Artists with local roots can be quite effective in helping to launch a neighborhood association in an area where the community organization has run out of energy. They bring whimsy and creativity to the task.

Disadvantages of Community Cultural Development

Despite the rapidly growing popularity of arts-based community development, there are some disadvantages that we’d like to spell out:

  1. You invite controversy. Most artists aren't shy about living and acting the way they want, or about making political or religious statements that may wrinkle a few feathers. Some people may think the graffiti is vandalism rather than art, and all kinds of questions about behavior, drugs, appropriate clothing, decorum, homophobia, hours, and so forth may have to be addressed.
  2. With few exceptions, most artists don't make a lot of money. Therefore their own contribution to your economy may be somewhat limited. They do tend to spend money out being social at coffee houses or bars, but don't expect a surge in clothing or sporting goods sales.
  3. If you are too successful, you will then have a gentrification problem, in which the artists are priced out of living in the neighborhood because rents have gone up because the higher-income "gentry" want to move in. This is especially hazardous if you have stayed true to the model of consolidating and assisting local artists, who will most certainly feel betrayed if higher-income outsiders are the ones who benefit. As a counter-balance, you need to plan at the outset how you will maintain housing affordability for artists.

Advance Planning for an Arts-Based Community Development Program

Often it is wise to have a longer-range plan when you create a community cultural development project, or when one accidentally starts up without your being purposeful. This plan should address questions such as potential alternative locations if artists are priced out, either for studio space or living space, or both.

When the performing arts market is saturated and your hotels, restaurants, and infrastructure are at capacity, what's your next step? Can you then branch out into visual arts? If your weather is nice only part of the year, partially accounting for your tourism-based success in community cultural development, what can you do the rest of the year to provide your citizens a more even income?

If the culture wars become too strong, who are the likely suspects for being able to bridge the divide between the town or the neighborhood and the newly attracted artists?

Learning More about Arts as Community Revitalization

In short, this is one of the fastest-growing community development approaches. When you think about it, community cultural development embodies the first of our three community development principles, which is creating a distinctive sense of place.

Not only can the artists help with neighborhood revitalization, such as in Paducah, Kentucky, but also they can bring real economic development. An excellent white paper on arts-based community development is worth a read. The appendix contains engaging and brief case studies of cities and small towns across the U.S.

Read Related Pages about Local Cultural Preservation and the Arts

  1. Community Development
  2.  >
  3. Housing
  4.  >
  5. Community Cultural Development

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