Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Building the arts and culture ecosystem in DC: Part One, sustained efforts vs. one-off or short term initiatives

Hewitt & Jordan - The Economic Function.jpg
The Economic Function, Billboard text at the corner of Corporation Street & Alma Street, Sheffield S3. 6 April - 20 April 2004.  

This work was part of a commission for Public Art Forum (now called Ixia) by Hewitt & Jordan called "The Three Functions."

On Friday I went to a presentation on how the city needs an "arts incubator," and it caused me to look back at my 2009 paper, "Arts, culture districts, and revitalization" in the context of various arts initiatives in DC since then, and the idea of "an arts incubator," which is being touted in various quarters, sparked in part by the sexiness of "accelerators and incubators" and start up culture on the IT side of local economic development.

I wrote the paper in support of my participation on a panel on "Theatre, theatres and urban revitalization" at the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs national conference that year, which was held in DC, with the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Penn Quarter as the primary venue.

The basic point was that artists and artistic disciplines can't expect real estate developers to represent artist interests.  They need to ensure that they represent themselves.

Working with enlightened planners--if there are any--artists and arts organizations should aim to create discipline-specific cultural plans for a community, to best represent their interests.

After discussing

- some academic work
- the difference between arts as consumption vs. arts as production
- the conundrum of developing a local arts scene that is complete in itself in the face of how DC's national arts presence (Smithsonian Museums, Kennedy Center, National Gallery of Art) sucks away a lot of the energy that would normally be present in a local arts scene
- the price of space here because of the frothy real estate market
- but how in many cities, the historical presence of industry gave to cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, etc., a detritus of massive old buildings with limited reuse opportunities were harvested by artists at low cost
- how other communities do planning for cultural space

the paper lists five things artistic disciplines need to do from a planning perspective:

- create a discipline specific cultural plan
- create a sustainable facilities plan as an element of community-wide and discipline-specific cultural plans
- create anchoring organizations and spaces that artists and disciplines need to support cultural production
- networking at the community scale
- share audiences/co market as a discipline.

Graphic on the arts and culture ecosystem from the SMU National Center for Arts Research

Creating an integrated ecosystem of arts and cultural organizations.  The paper reads well enough six years later, but I realize that I neglected to make clear a basic point that is unmentioned, which undergirds this argument (and virtually everything else I write).

That is the necessity of a networked system, in this case comprised of arts and cultural organizations, supporting the development and maintenance of the local cultural sector.

I take thinking in terms of systems and structures and processes for granted, but maybe it is too subtle for others to see.  

Temporary efforts don't contribute to the long term.  So much of what happens in DC's local arts scene is ephemeral and isn't well focused on building a stronger and greater whole.

One example is Artomatic. I think Artomatic--the next edition is upon us and will be held in Hyattsville starting at the end of the month--is really cool. It's a big extravanganza featuring hundreds of artists, performances, and talks in a "temporary space," and lasts for about six weeks.

But based on my focus on structural and social change and empowered civic participation, and adding to that the more academic perspectives of the Growth Machine (sociology) and Urban Regime (political science) theories about how cities work politically, I argue in favor of a focus on "sustained efforts" aiming to achieve significant outcomes.

Applied to arts and culture the aim should be creating an integrated framework of cultural institutions (aping the idea of the integrated public realm framework that I write about frequently in a variety of contexts).

Therefore my criticism is that the city's cultural sector isn't well developed, isn't focused on the long term and sustainability, and the focus on events--like Artomatic or "Art all Night" or "temporariums"--rather than on institutions and organizations, while neat, doesn't contribute substantively to the creation of a healthy arts ecosystem.
Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth
Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David Barth.

Temporary vs. tactical urbanism.  About three years ago I wrote why I hadn't been impressed by the various DC "Temporium" efforts.  (During the peak of the recession DC had a bunch of "temporary urbanism" initiatives across various commercial districts, focused on the arts,.)

It's because I am more interested in how to "sustain effort" in revitalization--because it takes years--and these projects have been one-off events that aren't part of a program leading to additional and further improvements in an area.

In other words, a temporium "event" shouldn't be an endpoint, but a beginning or midpoint project in an overall initiative to revitalize a commercial district.

In some respects, "Tactical Urbanism" is misnamed, it's more about citizen-engaged revitalization. Anyway, according to the Tactical Urbanism manuals, it is about sustained efforts:

While exhibiting several overlapping characterstics, “tactical urbanism” is a deliberate approach to city-making featuring five characteristics:

• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
• An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges;
• Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
• Low-risks, with a possibly a high reward; and
• The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.

Governance is about "the agenda" and it is achieved over long periods of time. To delve into practical theory for a moment, Growth Machine theory is better at explaining why things happen they way they do in the local political and economic system, while UR is great for understanding the mechanics of how it works. And those mechanics operate over long periods of time. Hence my focus on sustained efforts.
In the paper, "Now What? The continuing evolution of Urban Regime analysis," political science professor Clarence Stone writes: 
An urban regime can be preliminarily defined as the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed (Stone 1989). Because governance is about sustained efforts, it is important to think in agenda terms rather than about stand-alone issues. By agenda I mean the set of challenges which policy makers accord priority. A concern with agendas takes us away from focusing on short-term controversies and instead directs attention to continuing efforts and the level of weight they carry in the political life of a community. Rather than treating issues as if they are disconnected, a governance perspective calls for considering how any given issue fits into a flow of decisions and actions. This approach enlarges the scope of what is being analyzed, looking at the forest not a particular tree here or there.

By looking closely at the policy role of business leaders and how their position in the civic structure of a community enabled that role, he identified connections between Atlanta's governing coalition and the resources it brought to bear, and on to the scheme of cooperation that made this informal system work. In his own way, Hunter had identified the key elements in an urban regime – governing coalition, agenda, resources, and mode of cooperation. These elements could be brought into the next debate about analyzing local politics, a debate about structural determinism.
Limited adaptive reuse opportunities in DC.  For any sector, the long term is what matters. In strong real estate markets, the only way organizations control their own destiny is by controlling their space.

In terms of spaces that support the arts, unlike other major cities that expanded during the industrial era especially from 1870-1920, DC doesn't have a "large stock of old [and big] buildings" that as industry shifted to the suburbs and then overseas, can be adapted and captured for arts purposes.

This problem is further accentuated by the city's strong real estate markets and land use capacity constraints (zoning, height limit, one-third of the city's land is federal or otherwise large campuses like colleges, unavailable for other use), which means that only the best funded nonprofit uses can compete successfully against market uses in the competition to acquire and hold and operate properties.

Ecological conservation and "critical habitat" environmental concepts are relevant to thinking about local (DC's) arts ecosystems.  At the Friday presentation, and in response to what I might call the veneration of temporary uses in the face of the difficult structural conditions for arts groups, I started thinking about the local arts scene in terms of  the environmental and conservation concept of "critical habitat."

In US conservation law, "critical habitat" is:
a specific geographic area(s) that contains features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management and protection.
In terms of the DC arts scene, while people are pursuing "temporary spaces and projects," they miss the reality that the amount of space ("critical habitat") devoted to local arts and cultural uses continues to diminish.

A focus on temporary uses fails to ensure the long term creation and preservation of cultural spaces and a sustainable local arts scene.

Building the arts ecosystem.  Building a local arts ecosystem is actually pretty simple (but not cheap or fast).  What I outlined in the 2009 paper is still the case, it just needs to be extended across the entire cultural sector.

You start with a plan, you build institutions and spaces that support the arts and artists, and you create a sustainable funding system.

Apparently the city is in the process of creating a cultural plan (something I've advocated for 12+ years), compared to a lot of jurisdictions the city spends a lot of money on culture, both as citizen consumers and through our local government (for example, DC Government appropriates more money to the arts than does the State of Maryland Government, which has well defined arts support organizations, a regulatory framework--such as heritage areas and arts districts, and a transparent funding system), and we have a bunch of spaces, although not all that many, not very many large spaces, we're losing spaces and the cost of space is high.

At the same time a cultural plan for DC has to deal with the tensions between arts consumption and arts production, supporting artists versus supporting artistic disciplines, and the development of a strong local arts scene in the context of how the national arts institutions based in DC have for the most part shaped DC's "local" arts scene around the national arts narrative and artists and the presentation rather than the creation of art.

Forthcoming pieces in the series:

-- Part Two will focus on the different types of arts anchoring institutions
-- Part Three will focus on the different types of "arts districts"
-- Part Four will discuss that the planning framework discussed about needs to be executed at three scales: city-wide; by artistic discipline; and at the sub-city (neighborhood/commercial district/sector) with some examples from other placess
-- Part Five will briefly discuss how "everybody" (including me) missed the opportunity to keep the Corcoran Gallery alive by repositioning it as DC's "local" fine arts museum
-- Part Six will discuss the lost opportunity to have reconceptualized the to be rebuilt Martin Luther King Jr. Central Library as the city's premier local cultural institution with a program that would have made it one of the world's most exciting "local" libraries

"Patterns of Behavior in Endangered Species Preservation," Land Economics, February 1996
ABSTRACT. This paper analyzes statistically the main determinants of government decisions about the preservation of endangered species. As explanatory variables, we use proxies that include 'scientific' species characteristics, such as "degree of endangerment" and "taxonomic uniqueness," as well as 'visceral' characteristics, such as "physical size" and the degree to which a species is considered a "higher form of life." These proxies are used to study the government's protection and spending decisions on individual species. Overall, we find that the role of visceral characteristics is much greater than the role of scientific characteristics.

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At 9:20 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Would be helpful to work Artisphere failure -- and the 14th st theaters success -- as a counter example.

I'm fascinated by art because it so relates to economic instruments -- not for nothing Michael Lewis and Felix Salmon are art history types. Same skill sets is explaining a rare bond as explaining a painting.

And the commercials aspect of art seems a real failure here in DC.

I was in Grand Rapids for ArtWeek, and it was a impressive display of local talent and potential commercialization of art at entry price points. Certainly more galleries in GR than in DC.

Again, we are not a world class city in terms of the wealth than a LA, Chicago or NYC contains. But prosperous enough to have a better local arts scene? Color school aside.

I'd suggest GR and a good case study.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, there is no question I need to get out more... When looking for something else, I came across a mention of "Small Cities Month." Now that was for small rural communities.

But there is something to be said for looking at small cities like Grand Rapids. It is the second largest city in Michigan (Flint has diminished significantly, on a scale for its size comparable to Detroit). But still "small."

It's really helped by being "local" where local industrialists etc. still invest in civic life (including the DeVos family).

I still haven't written a major piece on Greensboro, NC, which has a lot going on in terms of revitalization, commitment by local foundations, collaborations amongst universities, etc.

2. in writing some notes about the series (which may end up being 9 pieces), I did list Artisphere and Signature Theater as examples that do need to be discussed.

The thing about Artisphere is that it was an arts center like some of the other "anchoring institutions" I am going to mention. But for whatever reason, it was mispositioned and had the impossible to meet requirement that it had to "make money."

Signature Theater is successful in its program, but as you know, didn't make enough money to pay its rent...

Is that because people in Arlington don't go to plays? How they managed? The location -- even though Shirlington is the major activity center for its area it isn't the R-B corridor?

3. the thing about buying art is an issue everywhere. The Midwest as you know has a good track record of successful art fairs.

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Yes, GR. Family friend is the director of the art museum. Keeping local money is a powerful tool.

Huge problem in art. Look at MC Dean.

I mean why do a 3rd rate scene in DC when you can have Miami?

That was what killed the corc. Local money didn't invest.

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

off topic, related to driverless car and cities reduced revenue stream:

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

thanks. will check out. speaking of oil and "reduced revenue stream," I didn't think of this, but there was a letter to the editor in either WSJ or FT by someone making the point that Saudi focus on low oil prices isn't just about decreasing the economic viability of fracking in the US, it's also about screwing the Shites in Iran.

2. on topic, thanks for the piece about MC Dean, I didn't know about that.

One of the additional pieces will be on financing (I'll probably re-order and it will be before the Corcoran piece). The big problem with the national-local is that the national institutions tend to suck up the big local donors that exist (like Rubenstein, the Reynolds', etc.) leaving little for the local.

I met someone who knows Lisa Phillips (of the Phillips Collection) and I need to reach out to her about the PC and how it manages to survive in this milieu....

I guess people who want to big "big cheeses" like MC Dean don't want to give to the national institutions because at the end of the day, the institution is still bigger than they are.

In a second tier but cool city like Miami they can still make a splash. To do it in LA, you have to be f*ing rich (Eli Broad). Not sure about the dynamics in NYC. There the rich people still make a big splash, but the institutions sill manage to have some (maybe decreasing) amount of countervailing power.

Not so with the Carnegie Hall debacle and Ronald Perelman. (Nothing personal but were I in position to make recommendations for board chairs, I wouldn't recommend people with a past history of being particularly litigious.)

It's getting lots of press and I understand the need to care about conflict of interest, but the materiality of the amount in question is so miniscule that you have to wonder about the motivations...

At 1:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm-m-m-m. Guess you missed this one:

As a long-gone engineer friend of mine used to say, "art" is nowhere to be found in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. FYI: DC is much more a hub and magnet for the performing arts, music in particular. At one time, DC had the largest number of regularly-performaning choral groups in the country. Many government workers came here for jobs because they wanted to play music or sing as an avocation.

@charlie: The Corcoran imploded for many, many reasons, not the least of which was a completely dysfunctional board that cannibalized and crippled the institution. Kriston Capps wrote a phenomenal series over several years for WCP about the Corcoran's slow motion collapse.


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I did see that piece. The real problem, to me, with the Smithsonian is different. I've written about it a lot, and even recently, here:

Their peer institutions aren't locally focused, they are national and international institutions.

But because the Smithsonian is federal, within our system, they end up being very parochial, self-satisfied, and not particularly innovative. (To some extent the Hirshorn was an exception, and the NPG is more innovative than the other arts museums).

The NGA is different, is allowed to be more innovative, but even so, I think it being ultimately under federal control handcuffs it as well.

It seems as if in European nations, the museums get a bit more independence, maybe aren't required so much to do the "national mythology" thing. But I can't claim to really know about how things work in the various European countries.

Interestingly, the Italy Ministry of Culture determined they were too parochial in the management of many of their museums, and they did a wholesale changeover of directors, with an international search. It's controversial, but at least 20 of the new directors are not Italian.

But the reality is that as far as keeping your finger on the trends and pulse of contemporary art, which is what the Hirshorn is supposed to do, DC isn't a very good place to be actively engaged. Being in NYC is a lot better. So it makes sense to me.

Same with the fundraiser. NYC is where the money is, where lots of rich people are accustomed to funding the arts.

But it isn't politically correct in the sense of the museum being based in DC.


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